I’ve heard a lot of pro-human embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) politicians talking about the need for “ethical stem cell research” lately. But this begs the question, and ignores the ethical portion of the debate. The ethical debate centers on the way embryonic stem cells are obtained: by killing human embryos. If the anti-ESCR group is right, and killing embryos for their stem cells is morally wrong, then there is no ethical way to conduct ESCR, because it kills the embryo every time. From an anti-ESCR perspective, when a pro-ESCR advocate talks about the need for ethical ESCR, it is as morally intelligible as saying we need an ethical way of killing minorities. There is no way it could ever be ethical, because the act itself is morally wrong!

If one doesn’t see killing a human embryo as unethical, I don’t know what other aspect of ESCR could be considered unethical. A pro-ESCR advocate might respond that how scientists procure eggs for the research might be unethical (paying women for their eggs), but this confuses cloning (in which eggs are needed) with ESCR (in which embryos, not eggs are needed). Of course, conflating the two distinct arms of research is a strategical move on the part of cloning advocates, in which they hope to gain support for cloning (which lacks popular support) by trying to play it off as part and parcel of embryonic stem cell research (which has popular support). But I digress. The fact of the matter is that apart from killing the embryo, there are no substantive ethical concerns with ESCR (excluding those concerns that accompany all medical research).

Of course, as I reported a few days ago, scientists are starting to discover possible ways to obtain embryonic-like stem cells without having to create, or destroy an embryo. That would be the only ethical way to conduct ESCR. Unfortunately, that’s not what the politicians have in mind when they talk about ethical stem cell research, and that’s not the type of research they are trying to pass legislation for.