University of Minnesota Stem Cell Class Needs Some Ethics

Bioethics   |   Paul Stark   |   Dec 12, 2011   |   5:19PM   |   St. Paul, MN

The University of Minnesota is set to offer a new undergraduate course dealing exclusively with stem cells. Although it will be a science class, one part will be about stem cell history and probably touch on the ethics of destroying human embryos for their stem cells. From the Minnesota Daily story by Rachel Raveling:

Discussion of using human embryonic stem cells for anything is naturally going to attract moral concerns, [Jeffrey Simon, a genetics, cell biology and development professor who will teach the course] said.

But he said the cells never come from an embryo that was fertilized in a woman.

Simon explained that most human embryonic stem cells used in research were donated and created in culture dishes in a lab, similar to how in vitro fertilization centers make fertilized embryos for couples who struggle to get pregnant naturally.

To clarify: There is no such thing as a “fertilized embryo” (that’s like calling a 16-year-old a “fertilized teenager”). An egg is fertilized, resulting in a new human organism at the embryonic stage of life. The human embryos used for research are created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) for infertile couples, but are then donated to researchers. The embryos are destroyed in order to derive embryonic stem cells.

I’m not sure if Simon is stating an ethical position, as the author implies. If he is, he appears to think that the fact that an embryo is created through IVF somehow changes what it is and/or how it may be treated. But whether created through natural fertilization or IVF, the resulting organism is exactly the same. And location (inside a woman’s body or out) is utterly irrelevant to whether an embryonic human being may be intentionally killed and instrumentalized for the possible benefit of others.

The University of Minnesota itself, as an institution, has taken a bold position on the ethics of killing human embryos. Not only is the University currently conducting embryonic stem cell research, it has strongly supported legislation to provide taxpayer funding for that research and to sanction human cloning (a different means of creating human embryos for destructive research). This past spring the University vigorously opposed both a proposed ban on human cloning and a measure to continue the existing ban on taxpayer funding of human cloning. Both bills easily passed the legislature but were vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

But never, to my knowledge, have University scientists and spokespersons offered a serious ethical justification for embryo killing and human cloning, the latter of which would entail the creation of young members of our species specifically in order to kill them for research purposes. Rather, the University has persistently — indeed, shamelesslymisled the public about legislation, cloning, embryos and therapeutic potential.

Perhaps a new ethics course would be helpful.

LifeNews Note: Paul Stark writes for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.