What are the arguments against stem cell research?Stem Cell Research

I strongly oppose human cloning, as do most Americans. We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts, or creating life for our convenience.President George W. Bush, August 2001

In July 2006, (former) President George W. Bush vetoed a bill to ensure the continuation and expansion of human embryonic stem (hES) cell research in the USA; including the proposition to allow discarded embryos created for IVF to be utilized as sources for new hES cell lines.

This opposition to hES cell research had long been one of his most noted principles throughout his period in office, with the President viewing such research as a means of utilising life for convenience (see above); and serves to emphasise the level of importance now attached to the stem cell research debate.

Having examined the arguments put forth by those in favour of stem cell research (link to arguments in favour of STR), what are the arguments stated by its opponents?


The ‘potentiality’ problem

As outlined in the Personhood tutorial, people differ tremendously in their view as to what an ‘embryo’ means to them. For some, an embryo is merely a cluster of cells, and can be derived, created and used as such. At the other end of the scale, there are those who believe that an embryo from its very moment of creation is to be viewed as a unique human entity; with the same rights as the woman that is carrying it. This spectrum of views emphasizes the long-debated question of embryo ‘potentiality’; put simply, is an embryo always to be considered as a potential human being; and if so, from which point after its conception? Many opponents of hES cell research state this issue to be the basis of their belief that such use of embryos should not be allowed under any circumstances.

Many opponents of hES cell research state this issue to be the basis of their belief that such use of embryos should not be allowed under any circumstances. To them, the issue of ‘potentiality’ creates the following problem with regards to hES:

As such, even if the benefits (such as life saving treatments and improved understanding of debilitating illnesses) put forward by supporters of the technology do eventually come in to fruition, these hypothetical ends cannot justify the means; or as George Bush stated when explaining his vetoing of the aforementioned hES bill:

‘‘[The bill] would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others’’.

The ‘Waste’ Argument

As outlined when exploring the arguments in favour of stem cell research, its proponents argue that embryos need not be specifically ‘created for destruction’ as there are hundreds of thousands of ‘excess’ embryos derived from IVF that are ultimately discarded if no longer required. Similarly, what of embryos destroyed or deemed defective by other technologies such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)? Surely these embryos, already destined for destruction, could be utilized in research? Whilst some opponents of hES cell research may accept this apparent “nothing is lost” use of embryos, for staunch opponents such use would still mean that the individual in question were “complicit” in the ultimate destruction of the embryo, having taken advantage of someone else’s immorality (Centre of Bioethics, Univeristy of Minnesota).

Utilisation of Cell Nuclear Replacement (CNR)

Cell Nuclear Replacement (CNR) is the process of taking the nucleus from the cell of an organism and placing it in a donated egg cell (that had already had its own nuclear material removed); and then promoting this new ‘embryo’ to develop. CNR (when applied to humans) thus forms the basis for stem cell therapy or ‘therapeutic cloning’ in that the genes and subsequent cell lines of the created embryo would be almost identical to the donor (patient)’s own; thus providing a source of applicable cells for the treatment of their medical disorder (What is all the fuss about?). Those in favour of the technology’s use state that since these are not true ‘embryos’ (in the respect of being unique, ‘potential humans’ as would be created in a reproductive context), they could and should be utilised as a source of stem cell research. Opponents however, state that to create any form of embryo simply to destroy it remains immoral, disrespectful and (as stated by George Bush) “unnatural”. It is also believed that the use of CNR for stem cell therapy opens too many doors to the “slippery slope” of human cloning.

Is religious faith a factor?

As outlined in ‘Embryo and Religion’ different world religions hold very contrasting views as to the status of embryo and in particular as to when it achieves personhood. Subsequently, as would be expected, they have similarly varying stances with regards to the embryo in the context of stem cell research.


For Roman Catholicism, the moment of fertilisation marks the beginning of a new human life. As such, the embryo, even its earliest form, has recognised rights including the opportunity to develop into a mature being. It is to be considered sacred and its life cannot be ended by any human agent. Consequently, the Catholic Church is a staunch opponent of embryonic stem cell research; openly condemning the creation of supernumerary embryos for research and only permitting IVF under extremely strict regulations (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, International Bioethics Committee (IBC), 2001).

Christianity (Protestantism)

Views amongst Protestants with regards to stem cell research and the status of the embryo are many and varied. Some groups hold the view that personhood is acquired gradually; whereas others side more with the Catholic view of the embryo having full status from conception. However, due to the emphasis within the Protestant church that every man should be responsible for his own morality and sense of conscience, a consensus opinion remains problematic.


Talmudic teaching holds that full human status is not obtained at the point of fertilisation but rather is acquired after a period of development; and that the embryo outside of the womb has no legal rights unless specifically bestowed upon it by its parents. As such, an embryo made for IVF and maintained in vitro without potential for implantation could be used in research within the context of developing medical therapeutics in order to fulfil the important Jewish duty of the saving of life.


The Muslim faith believes that ‘ensoulment’ of the embryo occurs at the 40th day after fertilization. Up to this point, therefore, stem cell research may be permissible. The various view-points expressed above emphasize the range of views with regards to the ‘potentiality’ of the embryo even amongst religious groups. It should also be stressed that even though a person may belong to a particular faith, they may not associate their own views with that of their religion as a whole. It is also important to note that some humanists and philosophers have similarly voiced objections to embryonic stem cell research from a non-religious basis, calling for the need for the need for better guidance surrounding the ethical permissibility of such technology; thus emphasising that opposition to the technology need not be driven by association with a particular faith group.

Political and Societal Factors

As outlined above, the various world religions have extremely differing views with regards to stem cell research and it is to be expected that their respective stances influence the nations in which they predominate. For example, in Ireland where Catholicism is the major religion, the Constitution completely prohibits embryo research due to the right to life of the “unborn child” being equal to that of the mother. Similarly, in Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador where Catholicism is also the dominant faith, the right to life is applicable from the moment of conception under the nations’ respective legal systems. However, some notable exceptions to this do exist. Germany does have a Catholic majority in the south of the nation but its population as a whole is predominantly Christian. Never the less, under its 1990 Embryo Protection Law, the creation of embryos is only permitted in cases of infertility and even then, they may only be created for direct implantation i.e. all embryos created must be used. It is believed in this case, despite the prominent Protestant presence in the nation, the combination of Germany’s Catholic south with its prominent eugenic history witnessed under the Nazi party (see The Embryo and Eugenics), have resulted in a highly cautious stance with regards to embryo research. In contrast, in Catholic-dominated Spain, stem cell research is now permitted under the ruling socialist government. It is clear therefore that, whilst religion does play a major role with regards to regulations surrounding stem cell research; political, historical and other societal factors are also contributing factors in determining national policy. In response to this position, proponents of hES research have offered two potential key solutions to the problem of this destruction of ‘potential humans’: