Stem cells 2013 July-30

No ethical bypass of moral status in stem cell research.

Bioethics. 2013 Jan;27(1):12-9.

Brown M.

University of Wisconsin Colleges – Philosophy, 518 South 7th Avenue, Wausau, Wisconsin 54403, United States.

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The Problem: Embryo Sacrifice in Stem Cell Research 

Embryo protection advocates argue that well established human subject protections rule out the sacrifice of human embryos in biomedical science and would rule out the sacrifice of human embryos to obtain pluripotent stem cells for use in drug development, cellular disease modeling or to derive transplantable tissue in regenerative medicine; embryo research advocates argue that human embryos fall outside the scope of human subject protections, and that as a consequence, embryo sacrifice is ethically justified in basic science and in the development of biomedical applications of stem cell research. Since induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can be derived without embryo involvement and iPS cells may become a viable substitute for embryonic stem cells in science and in medicine, reprogramming technology appears to some observers to bypass this ethical problem.


Analysis: Ineluctable Moral Complicity

The problem re-emerges at the level of moral complicity in the development of the iPS alternative. Induced pluripotent stem cell technology originated in human embryonic stem cell research, subsequent advances in the field depended directly or indirectly upon human embryonic stem cell research and major elements of the iPS research agenda are methodologically committed to the intensive study of pluripotency as it is expressed in the human embryo. Analysis of the concept of moral complicity implies that advocacy and participation in iPS research entangles advocates of embryo protection and advocates of embryo research in the moral status debate. It is true that reprogramming of somatic cells does not destroy human embryos, but embryo protection advocates who endorse or collaborate in iPS research nonetheless are morally complicit in embryo sacrifice. IPS research may even generate new moral complicity concerns with respect to informed consent, conscientious objection and product labeling.



Stem cell research policy makers may wish to consider a moratorium on further ES cell derivations.  It is worth revisiting this issue for two reasons: Additional ES cell lines have been derived since the enactment in 2002 in the U.S and in 2006 in Germany of restrictive regulatory regimes. First, as many as a thousand new human embryonic stem cell lines have been established worldwide since President Bush identified 22 ethically untainted lines.  Second, direct reprogramming of somatic cells may well become a viable substitute for human ES cells in regenerative medicine and basic science. The early 21st century German and American non-complicity schemes were virtually guaranteed to fail because those policies were designed to enable research which, if successful, would generate enormous demand for additional ES cell lines. In contrast, success in iPS and other reprogramming research would weaken demand for ES cell lines from patients suffering from degenerative disease and traumatic injury. This level of success could be expected to inspire cell biologists to conduct more basic science using human embryos as research subjects, but it is possible that existing ES cell lines are sufficient for those purposes. This is an issue that should be resolved on empirical and methodological grounds.


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