Hands Off That Embryo!

by aaaeefiklmnnosst on March 31, 2015 - 9:21pm

As the body of scientific knowledge has grown, researchers have been hard at work at harnessing this new knowledge and finding new applications for it.  As a result of these advances, many diseases which were once death sentences can now be treated.  Few research topics have raised more controversy than stem cell research, more specifically, embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cell research is a divisive issue and Christian faith-based religious groups in North America have been some of its fiercest opponents. One organization, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC for short), is particularly vocal in its opposition and is becoming more and more influential in the southern United States and in Washington D.C. The ERLC expressed its view on embryonic stem cell research in an article entitled What Christians should know about embryonic stem cell research published on its website. However, the question arises as to whether the ERLC’s representation of the issue is ethical.

The opposition of the ERLC to embryonic stem cell research flows from the fact that the embryonic stem cells used for research come from embryos generated from the in vitro fertilization process and donated by couples for research purposes. Given one of the tenets of Christian faith is that life begins at conception, the process of obtaining the stem cells leads to the destruction of the embryo and thus life and is seen as immoral. The ERLC is an influential organization and therefore has a moral obligation to present factual information to its readership to allow it to make informed decisions on the issues presented. Some may even argue that its influential status raises the bar in this regard.  There are flaws in the information presented. Some of the scientific findings are misinterpreted and taken out of context or oversimplified, and important information is left out completely.  The article is at best a cherry picking of kernels of information which support the ERLC’s stand on the issue of embryonic stem cell research.

In the section on government funding, the article points out that there are bans on such research in a number of countries but no such ban in the United States since Obama’s lift of the ban on government funding of embryonic stem cell research in 2009. This has the immediate effect of politicizing the debate, pitting Republicans against Democrats while it is well established that Christian conservative groups are more predominantly supporters of the Republicans, which had banned government funding for stem cell research. The article further only identifies countries that have a ban on research but does not identify any other countries which do not ban the research. This has the effect of presenting the United States as the outlier on the issue. By not providing a full picture of which countries support the ban and which do not and simply presenting the lifting of the ban as the act of a Democrat President, the article lacks nuance and does not provide information essential to understanding both the complexity and subtleties of the issue.

Furthermore, the article’s author, Joe Carter, states that treatments using embryonic stem cells cause cancer when tested on animals (erlc.com). This information, while not false, is presented totally out of context. Research is still ongoing on the mechanism by which stem cells divide and specialise. By stating unequivocally that embryonic stem cells cause harm, Carter is unnecessarily alarmist while at the same time failing to discuss the benefits of embryonic stem cell research. The information presented once again lacks balance.  In a similar fashion, the author states that embryonic stem cells are useless at treating diseases since there are zero diseases being treated using embryonic stem cells whereas there are ‘currently’ 70 using adult stem cells (erlc.com). The important word here is “currently”. While there may be none right now, embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat a greater number of diseases, since they can differentiate into more types of different cells. By only focussing on the present and failing to offer a balanced view, the author is not providing the context necessary for the reader to make an informed decision. By providing only information that supports his viewpoint, at times misinterpreting available information while at others politicizing the issue, the author fails to give the balanced and nuanced presentation the issue of embryonic stem cell research deserves. All of this also points towards author bias and unethical reporting. 

The answer may not however be so simple. After all, the religious arguments presented by the author are ethically sound. Christian tenets dictate that life is not to be taken. These tenets are akin to the deontological code of ethics of the Christian faith. By opposing embryonic stem cell research, the ERLC is behaving ethically. From the perspective of an ethical relativist, the views of the ERLC are justified, since no group can claim that their views are better than another group’s and that the code of ethics the ERLC follows is legitimate because people ascribe to it.

Approaching the issue in a slightly different manner but once again from the perspective of deontological systems, only the intent matters, regardless of the ultimate outcome. As long as the intent is there, it is the ethical thing to do. The ERLC, no doubt, has the necessary intent to oppose embryonic stem cell research, but does that justify the bias reporting on the issue or are we back to the old age debate of does the ends justify the means?

In my opinion, no. The ERLC stands for the respect of Christian beliefs and the manipulation of information does not and cannot advance their cause, no matter how noble it may be. Giving people the facts and allowing them to make informed decisions is the way to go. Without the whole picture, there can be no critical thought and meaningful dialogue.


Here is the link: http://erlc.com/article/what-christians-should-know-about-embryonic-stem-cell-research



Work Cited

Carter, Joe. "What Christians Should Know about Embryonic Stem Cell Research." The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. N.p., 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.


The issue of stem cell research is becoming increasingly relevant as the technology improves. Your analysis, from a deontological perspective, of the ethical issues associated with this topic was quite thorough. By discussing multiple ways to approach it using deontology, you demonstrate that you have put serious thought into your point of view. Anyone interested in developing this technology should seriously consider the arguments you brought forth.

Your piece could be strengthened by considering the teleological view of the issue, even if you disagree with it. As you mentioned, the idea of means and end comes into play here. Under a framework, such as utilitarianism, in which the goal is to maximize good and minimize harm, it is permissible for the end to justify the means. This notion seems to be troubling to you since, according to some definitions, stem cell research requires the deliberate taking of human lives. On the other hand, the donation of embryos is voluntary and therefore only done by people who believe it is worth it. These donors could have personal experience which would lead them to believe that they are doing the right thing.

In a world of conflicting ethical frameworks, the best compromise is to allow members of society as much choice as possible. To me, this means allowing embryonic stem cell research so that everyone may apply their own ethical framework when deciding whether or not to support this technology.