Is it right to use stem cells from human embryos in scientific research? In today's issue of Science, Louis M. Guenin, who teaches ethics at Harvard Medical School, says that for some human embryonic stem cells, it is not only justifiable, but admirable.
The stem cells he is referring to are those that come from embryos created through in vitro fertilization procedures, ended up not being used in the process, and were donated by the mother for research within certain restrictions.
Guenin calls this group of embryos "epidosembryos," after the Greek epidosis, a benefit for the common good.
At the crux of his reasoning is the claim that when a woman decides against intrauterine transfer of an embryo, the embryo never becomes enabled. At that point, "nothing can be gained for an epidosembryo by arranging that it perish as waste rather than perish in aid of others," he says.
On the other hand, through research, scientists can fulfill a duty to aid others.
Many scientists tout embryonic stem cells, which can develop into any kind of tissue in the human body, as a possible cure for many kinds of injury and disease such as Parkinson's, diabetes, and paralysis. According to Guenin, failing to use these surplus embryos would probably not result in the birth of even one more child.
"It is virtuous to eliminate suffering in actual lives when we may do so at no cost in potential lives," he writes.
"It seems difficult to deny that relieving widespread suffering is morally better than destroying embryos at no gain," he says. He also argues that up to day 14, a fertilized egg can become twins, so no human identity exists before this time.
Guenin sees a breadth of moral support for embryonic stem cell research, which "cuts the props from beneath any governmental prohibition," he says, referring to the current federal statute prohibiting research that destroys embryos.
[Contact: Judith Montminy, Robert Neal]