Posted by: stumpffk | February 25, 2009

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

I have decided to compose this post in light of a project that I am working on in another class, but nonetheless it is a topic that dumbfounded me when I came across it in Sam Harris’ book; the ongoing debate about STEM CELL RESEARCH. Sam Harris only briefly mentions it on pages 28-31 but I want to take a much closer look at his claims. While Harris does well to tear down a human embryo to a much more scientific term of blastocyst, he horribly misses the mark with what we know about stem cell research today. According to Harris, embryonic stem cell research is “one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. Here are Harris’ “facts”: “one of the most promising”, “could offer”, “may also be essential”. The first question I pose then is how exactly are these facts?
Here are the facts as I know them. I will concede to Harris that embryonic stem cells have the potential to be one of the greatest breakthroughs in science in decades in curing disease due to their pluripotent nature (the ability to become essentially any tissue in the body of the three germ layers). Adult stem cells on the other hand are multipotent (meaning that they can give rise to several different cell types). Here is where I begin to have a problem with embryonic stem cell research. Adult stem cell research has not been fully recognized and nor does it cause the destruction of a life. In fact as research progresses on adult stem cells, more and more therapies have been approved. According to an article by E. Christian Brugger, Moral Stem Cells, there are therapies for over 50 diseases and disorders and NO therapies using embryonic stem cells, not even any in FDA trials. While I am not trying to attack anyone’s beliefs about embryonic stem cell research and the question of whether it is moral to destroy a 3-5 day embryo to save a 7 year old burn victim it is important to look at the facts, not as Harris gives them, but as they actually are. I realize Harris spends only a small portion in regards to stem cell research but his claims are grossly off base and for a man of science I would hope that he would look a little bit further into his claims and what scientific research actually shows.
To conclude, I hope I didn’t get too scientific. I would just like to reiterate that if Harris wants to make claims about stem cell research, then he needs to get all of the facts and not distort them for the general public reader. I believe that if the New Atheists want to have a real conversation and present all of the evidence, then they should at least provide accurate evidence. Embryonic stem cell research MAY be promising but it has not shown to be thus far. What’s more is that until we have explored other options of research such as adult stem cells which have been proven effective, we shouldn’t resort to destroying life to MAYBE save another when we have less ethically problematic methods. I hope I didn’t get too far off on a rant but I couldn’t let it go unsaid and I can’t help but wonder, are these misleading arguments by the New Atheists deliberate?



  1. The interesting thing to me is that Harris takes on an argument that is not intrinsically religious. Preservation of life is not a religious argument, but one of natural law and human morality Though one could argue that a religious person will be more likely to uphold equal respect for all life, it can equally be a scientific argument. Life is definable by science. In fact such a definition is almost purely scientific no matter how you spin it. The primary problem in the abortion and embryonic stem cell debates is that science has not yet determined when life begins. Some argue that it is at conception; others argue that it is after implantation; others argue that it is after differentiation post-twinning; and others still, argue that life does not begin until birth. This can all be reduced to arguments that are purely scientific. The lack here is not a religious understanding, but a scientific definition of life. Therefore it seems to me that Harris is just looking for arguments that are not there. As a scientist he should be aware that the respect of human life is not explicitly a religious endeavor, but a human one. True, it has taken on a religious stance, but religions would not have needed to step in if science had definitively conceptualized definitions of life.

  2. I would like to add three quick items of my own:

    While I agree with your overall synopsis and am personally opposed to embryonic stem cell research, I think it is important to acknowledge that some of the potential breakthroughs in ESC research have been hindered by national political policy on the research. What I think that Harris and others want to point out is that the religious views of politicians are getting in the way of further discovery, cutting down progress before it even has a chance to take off.

    To add to your argument for the use of adult stem cells, it has been recently discovered that added four genes to a normal adult somatic cell will revert back to a pleuripotent (embryonic-like) stem cell. This are even more useful than embryonic stem cells because the somatic cells used for therapy can be taken from the patient, by passing all of the complications that come with genetic and protein compatibility.

    I admire Catherine’s viewpoint on the topic. This issue is really more than religious, and deals with our society’s recognition of and respect for human life. I think that discussions of medical ethics in purely philosophical contexts prove this point.

  3. I think that you all raise some very interesting and insightful points about embryonic stem cell research and the larger issue of the Beginning of Human Life. I think Catherine does an excellent job pointing out that the debate over the start of human life can defended by the evidence of science. Yet, I think it is essential to remember that as to now science has only offered conflicting and ambiguous evidence about when the mass of cells does in fact become a human person. Therefore, we must turn to philosophical ideas, theological beliefs, and cultural norms to help define the starting point for human personhood. Many people, adhering to various mental frameworks, have used the exact same scientific data to argue for opposing beliefs about the beginning of life and the morality of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Therefore, one’s view of ESC research is based on one’s interpretation of the evidence. How do you interpret the scientific support? How does the scientific data fit within your worldview and belief system? But, are the ethical concerns about ESC research based solely on individual interpretation? Is it all relative?

    I would say no. As Catherine pointed out; the belief in natural law, the dignity of human life, and the self-awareness of the human person directs all human beings to believe in the protection of all human life, regardless of which developmental stage that individual is at. Christians believe that these innate desires and instinctive concerns are the abiding love of God being expressed through our natural cognitions.

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