Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2009


On November 21, 2007, sensational scientific developments were reported by major newspapers, both in the United States and abroad. The media reported a new breakthrough in the area of stem cell research. According to two articles published in Science and Cell (both highly respected scientific journals), two teams of scientists were able to “reprogram” adult stem cells into embryonic stem cells, without actually having to experiment on embryos. The discovery was immediately hailed by the White House and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research. The New York Times gushed that the “stem cell wars” may be at an end. Two central aspects of the discovery were almost lost in the excitement. First, while the cells were successfully “reprogrammed,” the reprogramming process resulted in altering cells’ own DNA, making the cells more prone to become cancerous, and therefore not useful for therapeutic interventions. Second, any therapeutic progress based on the methodology outlined in Science and Cell is years, if not decades, away. Thus, at least with respect to the immediate future, the reported discoveries do not obviate the need to conduct research on cells extracted from embryos. Until such time as science will allow us to forgo the use of embryos to extract stem cells, the use of embryos will remain necessary, and the ethical debate attendant to such use will persist. This Article will argue that the use of embryos in such research is permissible even if the embryos are viewed as fully human and are entitled to all ethical and legal protections that go along with such status.

The purpose of this Article is twofold. First, the Article suggests that it is unnecessary to resolve the question of whether a fertilized egg is or is not a human life when deciding on the propriety and morality of embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, it may be conceded that life begins at conception. However, even in the face of such a concession, this Article will argue that it is morally permissible to harvest stem cells from embryos even if such harvesting would result in the destruction (death) of the embryo. Secondly, the Article will attempt to give a justification for embryonic stem cell research while proceeding from the premise that the embryo is to be treated not as a commodity, but as an individual with human dignity. In the process, it should become clear why embryonic stem cell research differs from abortion, and how one can — with philosophical consistency — simultaneously subscribe to an anti-abortion position and be in favor of embryonic stem cell research.