Moral Misgivings of the Stem Cell Scene
By Hansub Kim
Research in human embryonic stem cells and pluripotency has skyrocketed within the last two decades, yielding promising medical, pharmacological, and biological insights. Given the progress in stem cell research, ethical compromises and constraints have to be made in order to accommodate moral concerns about the value and beginnings of human life. In 1995, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was passed under the Clinton administration, prohibiting federal funding of any scientific process that would involve the destruction of an embryo. 8 years afterwards, the 14 day rule was implemented in private corporations, which prohibited research on, or derivation of embryonic stem cell lines from humans 14 days after fertilization. Although the 14 day rule has been effective in mediating the moral and scientific boundaries of stem cell research since first implemented in 2003, improvements in cryotechnology and culturing techniques have increased the likelihood of cell survival beyond 14 days, making it easier for scientists to object to the current limits.
The 14-day limit, while currently effective, also lacks scientific appeal because the 14th day post-fertilization, characterized by the “primitive streak’ that marks the beginning of germ layer development, is not unique to humans. However, a undeniably critical distinction between humans and other animals is our ability of rational thought, which is fetally governed by a rudimentary neural circuit present at the 8th week of development. To implement this efficiently, all world contributors to human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research should incorporate the “8 week rule” into government legislation. Thus, human embryos fertilized in vitro should be used to derive human embryonic stem cell lines before the 8th week of development, rather than the 14th day. Additionally, federal legislation should be passed accordingly to implement this policy for existing stem cell lines in every nation contributing to human stem cell research, including the abolishment of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
The 8th week of embryonic development, or days E42 – E48, marks the foundation of human neural development – although primitive brain structure has developed from the 3rd to 5th weeks post-fertilization, “Embryonic Day 42 (E42)” mark the first connections between the nervous system and the brain.
Neuronal production and neuronal migration first occur on E42, the first day of the 8th week. After gastrulation, or the transformation of the primitive streak to 3 distinctive germ layers, the human embryo is divided into an epiblast upper layer, and a hypoblast lower layer. The epiblast layer actively produces stem cell lines that will give rise to future organs, one of which are the neural progenitor cells. Until the 8th week of development, progenitor cells proliferate rapidly – however, from the 8th week of development, cell division becomes asymmetrical. One progenitor cell divides into one neural progenitor and one neuron; the neurons are then transported out of the ventricular zone, where they are created, and form a solid cluster of cells outside the ventricular zone (VZ), the foundational layer of the neocortex.
Gradually, more neurons are produced and wrap themselves around the original “cluster” in layers, mediated by the Cajal-Retzius cells and signaling molecule Reelin. This system is roughly analogous to a package sorting facility – packages, (neurons), make their way into the factory, where a worker (Reelin) takes an appropriate package and sends it to a second worker, (Cajal cell), which places it in the appropriate sorting pile. As a neuron leaves the ventricular zone and travels towards the cortex, Reelin is responsible for stopping its movement, and the Cajal cells pick up the neuron and places it in the correct cortical layer.
This process continues until 6 distinct cortical layers are established, completing the neocortex. The cells in the neocortex establish rudimentary sensorimotor pathways that connect the neural cells of the nervous system to the brain, sparking intersystem communication and the beginnings of the mental cognitive process that is unique to humans.
Research on human embryonic stem cell lines before the 8th week of development is supported philosophically as well as scientifically, by deontology. Immanuel Kant’s deontological argument of the categorical imperative states that the absolute value of human beings comes from their ability of moral differentiation – morality is a constant, universal construct that cannot be viewed subjectively, and the distinguishing feature of human life is that human beings develop the ability to rationally abide by moral standards. The deontological argument thus contends that the beginning of life is marked by the beginning of rational thought, which supports the constraint placed on research at 8 weeks of development, the beginning of rational cognition.
A potential counterargument to the 8-week proposal may be that allowing embryonic stem cells to be derived from cell lines for a window of 42-48 days is much too permissive, because it opens up possibilities such as therapeutic cloning and chimera formation. Firstly, legislation can be curtailed such that during this period of development, the embryos are used only to make embryonic stem cell lines. If the US Senate can pass a majority vote over this legislation, it will be easier to convince states with a long history of opposition towards stem cell usage (Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, and most of the southern states including Virginia) to strictly limit their usage for the sole purpose of hESC derivation. Secondly, the 8 week deadline is not, as many people may contend, too permissive of a deadline because the 8th week (day 42) is when neural communication commences, marking the beginning of rational cognition unique to humans. The primitive streak formed on day 14 is ubiquitous across all mammalian species, and is not unique to humans; any additional developments that occur afterwards, such as germ layer differentiation is present in many mammals that are already used ubiquitously in a lab setting for testing. Humans should be defined a different moral lifeline than animals, because the research that is being done aims at bettering human health.
With regard towards the second part of the thesis, existing cell lines, which are frozen in “cryo-cells” (industrial freezers) around the US, should be available for use, as well as federal funding, meaning that the 1995 Dickey Wicker amendment prohibiting federal funding of hESC research involving embryo destruction should be abolished. The rationale for this proposed legislation is both biological and philosophical.
Biologically, IVF (in vitro fertilized) embryos that are derived from human embryonic stem cell lines are classified into Grade A, B, C, D, and F based on their condition and likelihood of success in implantation. The number of Grade A and B embryos number less than 10 out of the 78 existing hESC lines, whereas the rest comprise Grade C, D, and F embryos. Because scientists are biologically forced to work with sick, fragile cells most of the time because much more of them exist than healthy cells, the probability of the cell lines dying, or researchers destroying them are infinitesimally short of 100%. Because almost all stem cell research involves the inevitable death of embryonic lines, the Dickey Wicker Amendment is prohibiting more than 99% of vital funding of embryonic stem cell research, significantly hindering scientific progress and encouraging privatization of corporations, which detracts from gross research funds.
Philosophically, the Dickey Wicker amendment wraps itself in hypocrisy – it strictly prohibits the destruction of existing cell lines – however, this reasoning is hypocritical because the embryonic cell lines the Dickey Wicker Amendment targets are the very stem cell lines that the government has allocated for research, and 99%+ of embryos in these cell lines die off. Additionally, the government rejects the Kantian categorical imperative once again, refuting the point that morality is absolute and cannot be passed on as a result of physical inheritance in research. As Bill Clinton signed the Amendment into effect, Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker justified the legislature by stating that “the destruction of human embryos for research purposes raises profound moral and ethical challenges”, some of which included moral tainting as a resulting of inheriting stem cells created immorally. Similar comments were made in the Bush cabinet in 2001, and in the Obama cabinet in 2009, a grave sign of the moral misunderstanding represented by current policy.
By both personal and Kantian standards, the deliberate production of human embryos for the sole purpose of deriving embryonic stem cell research is immoral because human lives were intentionally sacrificed. However, this does not mean, under any circumstances, that the use of already existing embryos is wrong.
Morality is synthetically a priori, meaning that it cannot be determined by experience, but instead is an absolute constant that should be followed for the sake of virtue. The method by which existing embryonic stem cells were harvested may have been unethical, but the means of stem cell production, or the Kantian “experience”, is morally separate from the ends. Whatever is done with the stem cells does not taint the morality of the doctor, surgeon, or research scientist using them, as long as they are within moral bounds themselves. This is the moral basis behind organ donation, or donating bodies to science for research. If a man is shot and killed but donates his body to medical science, he is deceased by immoral means, but that has no effect on the doctors using the body – they have no affiliation with what happened to the body previously; morality is absolute in this regard.
Conservatives and proponents of many religious denominations, however, like to argue against this contention because they believe that is it immoral to benefit off immoral deeds for a beneficial cause. However, this argument is circular and erroneous. Consider the dead man scenario from a logical perspective – according to opponents of the deontological argument, it is morally unacceptable for the doctors to use the dead man because the man had been subject to an immoral crime, and if doctors are able to cure cancer because of research on the dead man’s body, then everyone should refuse the cancer cure because it was sought on immoral grounds – which completely contradicts the opponents’ idea of morality and the value of human life.
The flaws in the fallacious moral rationale which was used to justify Dickey Wicker is thus applicable to Henrietta Lacks’ situation as well. Because George Gey took samples of HeLa cells without consent from Henrietta or any of her family, his actions could be interpreted as morally compromised. However, the doctors and researchers who used HeLa cell samples for their work, which provided enormous biological insight and breakthroughs in modern medicine, are unstained morally – the immoral ways in which HeLa cells were derived are not morally passable to the scientists doing work with them like a disease is passable through touch or breath.
Undoubtedly, the exponential boom in stem cell demand and popularity of stem cell research necessitates ethical boundaries. However, current policy on the cultivation of human embryonic stem cell lines not only misaligns financial priorities with biological inevitabilities, but cannot stand stalwart on moral grounds, embroiled in the tumult of moral misunderstanding. Instead of blocking its own path by depriving researchers of cell lines specifically allocated for research, the government should abolish policies such as Dickey Wicker, replacing them with more knowledgeable ones that fully accommodate the biological aspect of cell cultures. Achieving the right balance between conscience and progress will optimize the hESC research scene, minimizing ethical dilemma while leaving ample room for biological progress.
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