Ethics: Using Human Embryonic Stem Cells
The ethical issues of deriving stem cells from human embryos have been discussed in great depth and passion since their first isolation in 1998. The acceptability of such research depends on what is believed about the moral status of the human embryo. There are three main positions. Some consider that early human embryos have no moral status at all, and see no objection to all kinds of medical research using embryonic stem cells. Some even argue that we have a moral duty to use embryos if human suffering is thereby avoided. At the other pole, others consider that human embryos have the same moral status that we would give a baby. This makes any hESC research inherently wrong, because no medical benefit justifies the sacrifice of a human life. Others again take an intermediate position which would see human embryos having a special moral status above those of other cells, but not as much as a baby. This would allow some research but would restrict this to certain types of activity, only when necessary and subject to various conditions.
This is a matter of sincere but deep disagreement across Europe, among and within the EU member states, and their legislations reflect this with varying levels of what is or is not permitted.
The EC FP7 research programme only permits the use of hESC cells which have been derived from donated embryos which were originally created with the aim of conceiving children by medically assisted procreation, but which the couple do not now intend to implant. These so-called "surplus" embryos, are a maximum of 5 to 7 days old. The couple gives their written informed consent to donate for stem cell research. If the embryos were not donated they would eventually have been destroyed. Ethically this is generally seen as the most acceptable circumstances under which embryos might be used, a kind of "lesser of two evils", for those who would object to creating embryos specifically for research.
With current methods, stem cells are isolated from the inner cell mass of the embryo and are subsequently cultured in advanced cell cultures. Once isolated, these cells cannot by themselves give rise to a pregnancy.
The ESNATS project will not use cells derived from human embryos which were created explicitly for research from human gametes, or from any human embryos created by cell nuclear transfer cloning methods of any kind, or from parthenogenetically derived human embryonic material.