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Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Preamble

The following statement addresses the ethical implications of using human embryos as a source of stem cells for research. It also examines in vitro fertilization procedures, as they are the source of most of the embryos that are presently used for research. This statement does not explore in detail other kinds of stem cell research, but finds no moral objections to research involving stem cells derived from adult cells or umbilical cord blood. The United Methodist Church has made a commitment to consider all issues in light of concerns for the welfare of all people and the just distribution of resources. In light of that, we wish to state at the outset our conviction that Christians are called to use their resources to meet the basic health care needs of all people. We reaffirm our theological grounding on these issues as found in Section II of the 2004 Book of Resolutions, Resolution #102-"New Developments in Genetic Science."

Description of In vitro fertilization

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a clinical practice in which a woman's ovaries are hyper-stimulated to release several eggs, which are extracted and subsequently fertilized in a laboratory dish. This is for the purpose of creating embryos to be introduced into the uterus in the hope of implantation, gestation, and eventual birth. Current practice usually involves the extraction of up to 15-16 eggs for fertilization. The resulting embryos that are judged most viable are either introduced into the womb in the initial attempt or frozen and stored for possible later use. Some of the embryos are judged to be less viable than others and are discarded. (Those stored embryos that are not later used become the "excess embryos" whose use as a source of embryonic stem cells is currently under discussion.)

Concerns Regarding the Status of Human Embryos

A human embryo, even at its earliest stages, commands our reverence and makes a serious moral claim on us, although not a claim identical to that of a more developed human life. For this reason we should not create embryos with the intention of destroying them, as in the creation of embryos for research purposes. Neither should we, even for reproductive purposes, produce more embryos than we can expect to introduce into the womb in the hope of implantation.

We recommend the following guidelines to minimize the overproduction of embryos:

  • We urge clinicians and couples to make the determination of how many eggs to fertilize and implant on a case-by-case basis.
  • Only enough embryos should be produced to achieve one pregnancy at a time.
  • We insist that rigorous standards of informed consent regarding the procedures, the physical and emotional risks, and the associated ethical issues be applied to all reproductive technologies. This is especially important regarding the disposition of "excess" embryos and should be the norm of practice around the world.

Some Judgments Regarding the Use of Existing Embryos for Stem Cell Research

There has been a great deal of scientific interest recently generated by research on human stem cells. These are the cells that give rise to other cells. There are a number of potential sources for stem cells, including adult tissues, fetal remains, umbilical cord blood, and human embryos. The use of adult stem cells and stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood raise few moral questions. The use of human embryos as a source for stem cells has been the subject of intense moral debate.

Given the reality that most, if not all, of these excess embryos will be discarded, we believe that it is morally tolerable to use existing embryos for stem cell research purposes. This position is a matter of weighing the danger of further eroding the respect due to potential life against the possible, therapeutic benefits that are hoped for from such research. The same judgment of moral tolerability would apply to the use of embryos left from future reproductive efforts if a decision has been made not to introduce them into the womb. We articulate this position with an attitude of caution, not license. We reiterate our opposition to the creation of embryos for the sake of research. (See Book of Resolutions, 2000, p. 254)

The Issue of "Therapeutic Cloning"

In consideration of the potential therapeutic benefits that might eventually arise from research on embryonic stem cells, particular concerns are raised by a proposed practice called "therapeutic cloning." This involves taking a donated human egg, extracting its nucleus, and replacing it with a nucleus taken from another body cell. This newly formed cell would then be electrically or chemically stimulated to develop into an embryo. This embryo would contain most of the same genes as the person whose body cell was used to obtain the nucleus. The cloned embryo would then be used as a source of stem cells, which would be a closer genetic match for that donor, although they would contain some genes from the egg cell used for the cloning. This procedure might overcome the problem of immune system rejection of cellular treatments that might be developed for an individual from embryonic stem cells. As of March 2007, no human embryos have been successfully cloned. However, we still believe that human embryos should not be created purely for the sake of research, or created with the advance intention of destroying them, or cloned for harvesting stem cells.

The United Methodist Church supports persons who wish to enhance medical research by donating their early embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures have ended, and urges the United States Congress to pass legislation that would authorize federal funding for derivation of and medical research on human embryonic stem cells that were generated for IVF and remain after fertilization procedures have been concluded, provided that:

  1. these early embryos are no longer required for procreation by those donating them and would simply be discarded;
  2. those donating early embryos have given their prior informed consent to their use in stem cell research;
  3. the embryos were not deliberately created for research purposes; and
  4. the embryos were not obtained by sale or purchase.

The United States Secretary of Health and Human Services is urged to establish an interdisciplinary oversight body for all research in both the public and private sectors that involves stem cells from human embryos, parthenotes, sperm cells, or egg cells, and cells that produce sperm or eggs.

ADOPTED 2004
revised and readopted 2008
Resolution #366, 2004 Book of Resolutions

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2008. Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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