Stem Cell Controversy: Why Are Stem Cells Controversial?

The stem cell controversy rages on irrespective of the success of stem cell therapy in many fields of medicine. Many wonder why stem cells are so controversial, why others wonder why they are still allowed to be used in medical research.  It is a very emotive topic, and one in which both sides of the argument often use their hearts before their heads when they publish their views.

What is the truth of stem cell research?  Is it useful in treating specific ailments, or is it no more than a modern form of alchemy that claims to cure the incurable? We shall not be able to answer that question here, but we shall present both sides of the argument so that you can take your own stance based upon facts rather than myths or unfounded claims.

Stem Cell Research Controversy:  The Arguments Against

The arguments against the use of stem cells are largely moral ones, particularly in the use of embryonic cells.  Many, such as the Pro-Life movement, claim that an embryo is a living human being, and that using such cells in medical research, or in treating other human beings, is immoral. There are also religious arguments with respect to the sanctity of living human beings.

Many believe that an embryo should be permitted dignity in death, and not be used in any type of research, even if that research is for the benefit of other people. Others feel that if stem cell therapy is universally approved, then embryos could be created for the sole reason of providing stem cells, and that money might change hands between medical establishments and women in dire financial situations.

Some religious bodies regard a single cell division, and even the of fertilization, to form human life.  They also tend to ignore the fact that many embryos of around 75-250 cells, known as blastocytes, are excess to IVF programs and would normally be destroyed.  Many claim that it is better to do that than use them to save other human beings. Others claim that destroying an embryo is a crime – so what should be done with them?

Stem Cell Research Debate: The Arguments For

The proponents of stem cell therapy claim that an embryo in the form of a blastocyte comprising less than 500 cells is not a human being. It does not resemble an embryo as most people regard one, and none of the cells are differentiated or have a specific purpose.  There are no leg cells, heart cells or brain cells yet, so they argue that it is not a human being.

Another argument made is that the ‘embryos’ that would be used are left-overs from IVF treatment, and would otherwise have been destroyed.  Would they not, therefore, be better used to save human life than be incinerated?  It is a strong argument that has yet to be answered by those campaigning against their use. As far back as 2003 it was stated that 400,000 such embryos were being stored in the USA. [1]

The Religious Viewpoint on Stem Cell Treatment

The Christian churches generally do not support the use of embryonic stem cells for treatment of disease, even the use of blastocytes, although the Catholic Church and most others support stem cell research involving cord or adult stem cells. The Mormons have not expressed a view one way or the other in the stem cell research debate.

The Jewish view is the any stem cells that have not been implanted in the womb can be used, and Islam scholars generally take the view that under the Qur’an, stem cell research can be carried out [2].

The Future Argument

Currently, most western governments permit the use of embryonic stem cells for research but not for use in treatment. However, since viable undifferentiated cells can be obtained from bone marrow and the umbilical cord, the argument might shortly become an academic one. Successful undifferentiated and pluripotent stem cells have been prepared from blood tissue, fat cells an some skin cells, and in many cases even cells that are partially differentiated can be employed in stem cell treatment for certain conditions. These are now more commonly used than ‘embryonic’ blastocytes

The stem cell controversy still rages, but few researchers doubt that this type of treatment will become commonplace over the next few years, and that certain illnesses and conditions may shortly become a thing of the past. For now, however, the source of stem cells used in research and treatment will remain the subject of much discussion and also subject to close scrutiny.


1.  Weiss, Rick. (May 8, 2003) “400,000 Human Embryos Frozen in U.S.,” Washington Post.