Embryonic Stem Cells - The False Dilemma

Of course, the big news about stem cells comes from Missouri where they are considering an amendment to the state constitution "ensuring that all federally allowed stem cell research can occur in Missouri." While the headlines are being co-opted by the claims that Rush Limbaugh attacked Michael J. Fox (if Mr. Fox expected to be immune from attacks when taking sides in a political fight, he is delusional), the real battle is about whether embryonic stem cell research should be allowed in the state to the same extent that it is allowed federally.

This discussion always needs to be kept in context: no one of which I am aware is opposed to stem cell research generally. If a disease can be obtained from research on stem cells, then that's okay by virtually everyone. But, here's the issue: researching on embryonic stem cells takes a human life. Embryonic stem cells come from one place: embryos. To get the stem cells from the embryos kills the embryo. The embryo is undoubtedly a living human in an early stage of development. Thus, logically it is clear that the killing of an embryo is the killing of a human being.

Now, I know there are people out there who believe that the killing of an embryo shouldn't have the same moral weight as the killing of a fully developed human being. After all, they reason, it is merely a group of cells at that point with no ability to feel or think. Isn't the taking of this life in furtherance of medical research part of the greater good?

The problem here is that the entire argument for embryonic stem cells is based on a false dillemma. In logic, a false dilemma (or false choice fallacy), is a fallacy of painting the two alternatives offered as the only alternatives while ignoring alternatives between the two. As described on the Santa Rosa Junior College fallacy page:

[The False Dilemma fallacy p]oses a choice between two alternatives without acknowledging any other possible alternatives as if those other possibilities do not exist. A false dilemma allows the writer to assume only one of two choices and to pick the lesser evil instead of exploring a wider range of alternatives. For instance, we might tell you that you either studied all day yesterday or you failed the test. That assumes there was only one way and time to study and that studying at those times would guarantee a passing grade. In fact, of course, one might study at a variety of times and a student may fail a test for a variety of reasons.

The case for embryonic stem cell research is presented as an alternative of allowing embryonic stem cell research which provides the promise of new treatments that cannot be obtained otherwise, or by standing in the way of medical advances by insisting that researchers not be permitted to use embryonic stem cells. This is such a clear false choice fallacy, I am surprised more people don't recognize it. But then, scientists who engage in the research make the case that only embryonic stem cells can provide the treatments that are envisioned. For example, look at the following from An information page on embryonic stem cell research from the University of Madison-Wisconsin:

There are several approaches now in human clinical trials that utilize mature stem cells (such as blood-forming cells, neuron-forming cells and cartilage-forming cells). However, because adult cells are already specialized, their potential to regenerate damaged tissue is very limited: skin cells will only become skin and cartilage cells will only become cartilage. Adults do not have stem cells in many vital organs, so when those tissues are damaged, scar tissue develops. Only embryonic stem cells, which have the capacity to become any kind of human tissue, have the potential to repair vital organs.

A couple of facts about embryonic stem cell research need to be hightlighted.

(1) To my knowledge, there has been no treatments yet developed from the use of embryonic stem cells. Meanwhile, there have been upwards of 50 treatements from the use of adult stem cells. Thus, embryonic stem cells is somewhat of a theoretical dream that these embryonic stem cells can somehow produced treatments that the adult stem cells cannot produce. I agree that embryonic stem cell research is in its infancy, and it is possible that such treatments may come given enough time and money (especially money), but research is already bearing fruit in the area of adult stem cell research which means that no one needs to guess whether that area will provide treatment.

(2) Scientists are discovering alternatives to embryonic stem cells that appear to serve the same function. For example, an article entitled "Synergy between immune cells and adult neural stem/progenitor cells promotes functional recovery from spinal cord injury" reports that adult human stem cells "isolated from adult tissues behave like embryonic stem cells and hold promise for clinical use." In the study, the researchers "introduced adult neural stem/progenitor cells along with a myelin-derived peptide into the spinal fluid of mice and found that they promoted the functional recovery of the spinal cord after injury. The myelin-derived peptide stimulated the activity of immune cells, which created a synergistic response to the implanted adult neural stem/progenitor cells." (The quoted language comes from Reasons To Believe's Daily Newsletter's summary of the report.) This report, when coupled with earlier news of alternatives to embryonic stem cells to achieve the same goals (one such other alternative referenced on CADRE Comments here) makes it clear that it is not an "either-or" issue. It certainly appears probable that one does not necessarily have to sanction through law the ethically questionable practice of killing embryos to research treatments in order to still promote scientific advances using stem cell research.

While I am not a resident of Missouri, if I were I wouldn't vote for a measure that is based on a fallacious argument -- regardless of how much I liked Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly.


Follow-up post on another non-embryonic stem cell treatment entitled Another Embryonic Stem Cell Alternative


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