Stem Cells Made Simple


There’s a phrase that people toss out when the conversation is confusing: K-I-S-S. “Keep it simple, stupid.” Now, “stupid” is a word our family doesn’t use. Let’s say, “Keep it simple, silly?” If you try to follow the discussion about stem cells, maybe you wish that someone would keep it simple.

Well, I’d like to walk through some simple questions about using human embryos for stem cell research, and some simple responses. Not dumbed down or simplistic, because this is not a trivial issue.

First, “what is embryo stem cell research?” It is a process to remove stem cells from a human embryo when she is about five days old. Since those cells are capable of developing into all the tissues that make up a human body, the goal is to use her cells to grow tissues or organs, or to study how diseases progress, or to find cures. By the way, each embryo dies as she is carefully torn apart, cell by cell.

Next, “does it work? Is it beneficial?” So far, not a single experiment has succeeded. The stem cells have the awful habit of turning into tumors, doing their own thing, like unruly two-year-olds. (On the other hand, there are successful stem cell experiments, more than 70 diseases and counting. These are done with adult stem cells, who act like adults and do what they’re told, going to the part of the body that is injured. And, no human beings are destroyed to do that.)

“But it could work. Isn’t that ethical? Shouldn’t we try?”

Yes, the experiments could work…some day, after thousands of attempts. But hypothetical cures don’t justify every medical experiment. The reason we rejected the experiments of Nazi doctors was because they were immoral, not because they didn’t work.

“Embryos aren’t really human beings. They’re so small, no bigger than a dot.”

Do you recognize this argument? It’s discrimination. It’s also the justification we’ve used to mistreat a lot of members of the human family, by focusing on some observable characteristic, like appearance (“his skin is black”), or gender (“she’s only a woman”), or mental ability (“sterilize the feebleminded so they don’t reproduce criminals”), or age (“he’s lived a long life, so let him go”). The embryo’s size is just right for a human of her age.

“But, they’re just going to be wasted. Shouldn’t some good come of them?” This is a moral line we should never cross. Don’t use some human beings without their consent for the speculative—or actual—benefit of others. We can’t use others to get what we want, no matter how worthy our goals. Every human being has equal worth, no matter their race, or sex, or age, or size.

As Christians, we know that evil can never be justified by the claim that some good might come.

And now, a quick review. Human embryonic stem cell research destroys embryos to harvest their cells, in the hopes of curing disease. So far, no experiments have succeeded. Even if they did work, it’s not right. We should not discriminate against embryos just because they are small. We should never use other human beings to get what we want.

Is that simple enough?


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