Stem Cell Research: Is a Life for a Life Required?

Stem cell research provides the latest in a long line of promising therapies brought to you by modern medical technology. The possibilities are tantalizing, according to stem cell expert Dr. David Prentice: self-healing building-blocks of life, repair of aging and diseased organs, revitalizing "worn out" tissues, ending death sentences due to traumatic injuries. Once again, science and technology seem to usher in new possibilities for quality of life—indeed, a great lengthening and strengthening of life and perhaps even an eventual end to death itself, some hope.

And the world is jumping on the bandwagon. Two weeks ago, the UK granted its first license to produce human clones for stem cell research, having passed legislation to permit it in 2001. According to (8-26-04), "The South Korean parliament followed in December [last year], and by February scientists there announced they had become the first in the world to successfully clone a human embryo and extract stem cells for research. Last month, top scientists in Japan adopted recommendations for allowing limited cloning of embryos for stem cell research. The UN will review its own policy this year.

Yet, lost in the hype, celebrity campaigns and a California ballot initiative for unbridled stem cell research—and the concomitant human cloning that is sometimes ignored or even covered over—has been a widespread ignorance (and ignoring?) of two major truths: one, the source of stem cells determines whether life is simply treated or if early life is destroyed to provide therapy and; secondly, one type of stem cell has a growing, promising track record of success while the other remains marred by serious problems and is largely conjectural.

Ron Reagan, son of the late President Ronald Reagan who died of complications arising from Alzheimer's disease, passionately promoted embryonic stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention. His mother Nancy, actor Michael J. Fox, wheel-chair-bound actor Christopher Reeve and other luminaries have thrown their hat in the ring to push for unbounded use of embryonic stem cells in research to treat the kinds of diseases and afflictions that have touched their lives. The emotional appeal is powerful. In discussions at my own church, one nonplussed proponent appealed to my own son's theoretical demise from some sort of otherwise incurable cancer to make the point that, in a nutshell, "If it can be treated, it certainly should be." I could not have agreed less with this pragmatic, utilitarian position—even if my only son had "incurable cancer."

But why not? Isn't the power to heal and prolong life a good thing? Ethicists—particularly those grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition and Scripture—are careful to point out the false dichotomy being foisted upon the public: namely, either you open the doors to embryonic stem cell research or you're an anti-progressive Luddite operating on religiously motivated, ignorant bias. However, this is a false choice for the reasons already mentioned: stem cell research, that is adult stem cell research, has already been indicated as safe and effective. Take the case of one man crippled by Parkinson's disease who, due to treatments with his own (adult) stem cells, once again roams the African bush photographing wildlife (see testimony below). As well, and more fundamentally for biblical thinkers, why should a therapy that takes a life even to save or enhance another even be considered? This cuts across the grain of traditional ethics very cleanly, yet one would be hard-pressed to find that even mentioned in the mainstream press coverage or political speeches of today.

One such myth remains: President Bush banned all stem cell research. Yet, private research on embryonic cell lines continues and adult cell lines continue to display amazing restorative powers.

Scientists have indeed used early embryos or blastocysts, some from embryos previously created for implantation and pregnancy, some created solely for research, but results have been mixed at best. Cells often grow out of control into tumors, immune systems sometimes reject the cells and as yet no way has been found to guide the cells into the differentiation needed for use in the adult (or child) body. Granted, it would take many more cell lines (and a great deal more money) to reach this point of learning how to guide the differentiation, if indeed it can be done, which provides another utilitarian argument for lifting the limitation on embryonic cell lines.

Cells from birthed humans (called "adult stem cells" whether the source is literally an adult or a child or even a baby), on the other hand, show extraordinary results and promise. Spinal cord injury victims have testified before the U.S. Senate of their recoveries, heart attack patients have regenerated hearts, a sickle cell anemia sufferer was cured by umbilical cord blood (which as the others, required no human death) and cancer patients now live symptom-free. We have gathered a few articles, essays and other resources, some of which offer further lists of current successes.

Despite the pleas for a no-holds-barred approach, can our society afford to drive headlong into a "brave new world" of unrestricted embryonic stem cell research despite the destruction of tiny humans who already possess a unique DNA signature? What will this portend for the protection of human life at its earliest stage in other ways? Will this spill over further into using humans as parts factories, which is already evident in the trafficking of body parts? Why is so little communicated to the public from many sources regarding the relative success of adult stem cell therapy and trials as compared to the false starts and disasters surrounding embryonic stem cell research? We address these and other related issues from a variety of authoritative and thoughtful sources in our Special Focus.


—Byron Barlowe, Editor/Webmaster, Leadership University

Featured Articles

Senseless on Stem Cells
Hadley Arkes, Ph.D.
Arkes offers a soundbite approach good for the fictional situation of a Larry King Live interview, inspired by President Bush's interview on the topic of stem cell research. Reduces the arguments for adult stem cell research over and against embryonic stem cell research to brief, simple terms, with a few examples to back it up.

The Real Promise of Stem Cell Research
Dr. David A. Prentice
"I am in favor of stem cell research. In fact, I don't know anyone who is opposed." That is, when the oft-overlooked and misunderstood distinction of the source of those stem cells is defined. World-renowned stem cell researcher and expert Prentice gives a brief primer on the issues, which once explained, become fairly simple: adult stem cell therapy already has a successful track record while their embryonic counterparts don't. But there's more to it.

Stem Cells and the Controversy Over Therapeutic Cloning
Dr. Ray Bohlin
The debate over the ethics of obtaining and using human embryonic stem cells will be around for some time. What are stem cells, where do they come from, and what is their potential to cure degenerative diseases? The potential of stem cell therapy must be weighed against the personhood of the embryo.

Two Boats, a Helicopter & Stem Cells
Russell E. Saltzman
Saltzman writes about his own experience with diabetes and his reaction to those who would harvest fetal tissue in order to advance research into cures for his disease.

Michael Kinsley Out on a Limb: Stem-Cell Rationale Recalls Ideas of Debunked Scientist
Nancy Pearcey
Syndicated columnist Michael Kinsley tries to use an out-dated evolutionary theory to support embryonic stem-cell research, and is roundly trounced in this article by Nancy Pearcey, which was published in Human Events.

The Controversy Over Stem Cell Research
Dr. Ray Bohlin
A conservative Christian perspective by a scientist on the ethical problems of stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cell research.

Slide Presentation: The Science of Human Cloning
Dr. David A. Prentice
An informative slide presentation in nicely printable PDF format containing simple illustrations and quotations that explain the rationale for moving ahead with adult stem cell research while curtailing embryonic stem cell research. May require background reading and outside sources for terms (see glossary: ), but still helpful as an overview. [Note: "ES" means "embryonic stem" within the presentation.]

Stem Cell and Cloning Glossary of Terms
Dr. David A. Prentice
A basic glossary of terms surrounding stem cell research and the concomitant practice human cloning written by top expert and researcher David A. Prentice. Helpful for use with his slide presentation, The Science of Human Cloning (see:

Mini-Review: The Politics of Cloning, Apologia Report 6:20, 2001
Rich Poll (Apologia Report)
This Apologia Report archive issue contains a mini-review of the LA Times article "The Politics of Cloning" by Eric Cohen. Also current nuggets on Neopaganism, Oneness Pentecostalism, open theism, and science fiction.


The United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held hearings on stem cell research in July, 2004. Below is some of the quite interesting testimony of medical researchers and patients, beneficiaries of stem cell therapy.

Spinal Cord Injured Recipient of Adult Stem Cell Therapy
Testimony of Michel F. Levesque, MD, FRCS(C), FACS
"...The current debate between the embryonic stem cell proponents and those who are opposed to their use distracts from other avenues with promising outcome, such as adult stem cell therapy. It also overlooks other important issues of resource allocation between basic and clinical research, health insurance, and patient care. Scientific knowledge has rapidly progressed in the last five years and stem cell research and therapy remains a very promising field for treatment of neurological disorders."

Beneficiary of Adult Stem Cell Treatment for Parkinson's Disease: Safaris and Swimming with Sharks
Testimony of Dr. Dennis Turner
Treated by his own adult stem cells, Parkinson's disease victim Dennis Turner testifies of huge gains made by the treatment to a U.S. Senate committee. He improved so much that he was able to indulge in African safari trips and was unrecognizable as a Parkinson's sufferer by a neurologist.

Beneficiary of Adult Stem Cell Treatment for Spinal Cord Injury and Paralysis
Testimony of patient Laura Dominguez
The 10th person on earth to receive experimental treatment in Portugal using her own tissue reimplanted into her injured spinal cord, 19-year-old Laura Dominguez has seen remarkable regrowth of her spinal cord, renewed sense of feeling and use of her lower body and hope for the future. This is her plea to the U.S. Senate to authorize more funding for research. One major upshot: no embryos needed to be destroyed for this promising treatment.

Related Resources

Biotech Cannibalism
C. Ben Mitchell
Government-approved human cloning has begun in the UK. "Already we've seen the cloning of sheep, monkeys, cows, and pigs--a veritable barnyard of clones. Ole McDonald, the mythical farmer, is next." Discusses so-called technological imperative and the ethics of creating life that will be destroyed in order to save life. A prophetic precursor to that recent British decision written a few years beforehand.

Genetic Testing for Diseases: A Judeo-Christian Perspective
Professor Michael Atchison
Recent advances in technology (the polymerase chain reaction, in particular) make it possible to characterize the genotype of single cells, or rare mutant cells in a population of normal cells..... A variety of ethical problems arise from knowledge gained by the power of this technology. Issues such as the right to privacy and ethical questions about the personhood of the unborn come into play. We will look at some of the ethical issues that arise from this technology and will examine how different worldviews shape our approach to those issues. In particular, I will contrast the Naturalist worldview with the Christian worldview . We will then look at some of the logical consequences for adopting either worldview.

Related Links

Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics
From the organization's founding statement: "Stem cell research promises great good and is a worthy scientific priority as long as we pursue it ethically. Obtaining stem cells from people without seriously harming people in the process can be ethical. However, obtaining stem cells from human embryos cannot be ethical because it necessarily involves destroying those embryos."

The President's Council on Bioethics
According to chairman Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D., "Among the most urgent of the Council’s intellectual tasks is the need to provide an adequate moral and ethical lens through which to view particular developments in their proper scope and depth." See link to "Stem Cells" Web pages including articles at bottom of the list entitled Topics of Council Concern.

The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network
"The Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC) is composed of Doctors, Nurses, Ethicists, Clergy, Educators, and other professionals coming together to educate and equip people to face the bioethics issues of the 21st Century, a century already christened 'the Biotech Century.'"

Public Exchange: Stem Cells & Clones: Theological Perspectives on Biomedical Research
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Transcript of a question and answer session following the 2002 conference lectures by Gilbert Meilaender, Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University and member of the Presiden't Council on Bioethics and Richard Miller is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Jean Bethke Elshtain moderated.