Cloning and Stem Cell

taking samples from test tubes filled with blood

Human embryonic stem cells are stem cells that are derived from the developing human embryo. They are most useful in research because of their ability to change into any type of cell, tissue or organ in the human body – that is, their pluripotency. As such they can be used in the treatment of a very large number of conditions. The main ethical issues arise from their source – donated embryos, most often left over from the IVF process.

Non-embryonic stem cells are stem cells that are not derived from an embryo. Two examples of these are cord-blood stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. Because they are not derived from embryos there is substantially less moral controversy about the use of these stems cells in research. However, there are limits to the use of non-embryonic stem cells. First, for all but induced pluripotent stem cells, other stem cells are not as versatile as the embryonic version and so they cannot give rise to the same range of human cells; and second, they do not help with research that is aimed at understanding the developmental mechanisms involved in these processes.

Admixed human embryos are a range of ‘combined’ human-animal embryonic cells. The most commonly used in research are ‘cybrids’. Cybrids are made by inserting the nucleus of a human cell into an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed. They are useful in research because they are an easy way to create embryos so that the understanding and control of human embryos and development can be understood. Chimeras are usually formed by merging human and animal embryos whilst hybrids have human and animal chromosomes. The most common objection to these techniques involves claims about interfering with nature – by creating ‘half-human, half-animals’. A further objection points to the lack of dignity associated with the creation of these embryos. Such an objection relies on a particular conception of the moral status of the embryo.

Therapeutic cloning is cloning that is aimed at producing stem cells, tissue or organs for the therapeutic use of the individual from whom they are cloned. The advantage of therapeutic cloning is that the stem cells or other tissue created will have matched DNA to the  recipient and so there will be little risk of tissue rejection. The main ethical issue associated with therapeutic cloning is that it requires the creation and destruction of an embryo, which on some views on the moral status of embryos is wrong.


The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Devolder, K., (2015), 'The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research', (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Embryonic stem cell research holds unique promise for developing therapies for currently incurable diseases and conditions, and for important biomedical research. However, the process through which embryonic stem cells are obtained involves the destruction of early human embryos. Katrien Devolder focuses on the tension between the popular view that an embryo should never be deliberately harmed or destroyed, and the view that embryonic stem cell research, because of its enormous promise, must go forward. She provides an in-depth ethical analysis of the major philosophical and political attempts to resolve this tension. One such attempt involves the development of a middle ground position, which accepts only types or aspects of embryonic stem cell research deemed compatible with the view that the embryo has a significant moral status. An example is the position that it can be permissible to derive stem cells from embryos left over from in vitro fertilisation but not from embryos created for research. Others have advocated a technical solution. Several techniques have been proposed for deriving embryonic stem cells, or their functional equivalents, without harming embryos. An example is the induced pluripotent stem cell technique. Through highlighting inconsistencies in the arguments for these positions, Devolder argues that the central tension in the embryonic stem cell debate remains unresolved. This conclusion has important implications for the stem cell debate, as well as for policies inspired by this debate.

"As an academic bioethicist with experience in the clinical setting, it is important to me that context and morality are married. Devolder's book accomplishes this task nicely, beginning in the introduction with a consideration of the potential use of embryonic stem cell (if not the embryo as a whole) for the alleviation of pain and disease. She convincingly directs us towards our moral obligation to allieviate suffering, underscoring that embryonic stem cell research is thus a moral enterprise." - Ayesha Ahmad, London School of Economics, Times Higher Education

"In her small but well written and insightful monograph Katrien Devolder is focusing on these "middle-ground positions" together with technical solutions to the dilemma. The author has been working on reproductive ethics in general and on embryo and stem cell research ethics in particular for more than ten years. Her book is based on several previously published articles, but it is far more than a mere collection or a re-use of essays." - Marco Stier, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

"Devolders study is a tour de force, exhibiting real skill and imagination in the use of analogies to test our moral intuitions...The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research is a solid contribution to our stem cell debates. Neither partisan nor committed to advocacy for any side, it displays epistemic honesty and exhibits the value of philosophical analysis at its best." - Ronald M. Green, Monash Bioethics Review

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