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October 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 28

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Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Morally Wrong


by Bernard James Mauser, Ph.D., San Diego Christian College



Do stem cells have the same moral status as adult human beings? One may make the argument that embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is wrong because it ends the life of a human person. Because it is wrong to kill a person, it is also wrong to end the life of an embryo. Further, the rights of an adult human person, such as a right to life, ought to equally apply to embryos, and this means that ESCR is wrong because it takes away an embryo’s right to life.


Against considering the moral status of embryos as the same as adults, Richard Werner gives an analogical argument that supports ESCR.[1] The analogical argument compares an embryo and a human being that is brain-dead. The argument says that the two have the same moral status because both lack that which makes them a person, namely, rationality.


One of the problems with Werner’s view is that his presupposition about what makes a human valuable is wrong. Werner says that a person is valuable (i.e., deserving protection) if they are functioning rationally. Yet, this property is an arbitrary standard that can be used to exploit other human beings. Humans that need our protection and help the most he claims are not persons. These include infants, babies, and those with mental problems. Obviously infants, babies, and those with mental problems are not functioning rationally. But from the fact that they are not functioning rationally, it does not follow that they are not intrinsically valuable and do not have a right to life. Further, just because someone is not functioning rationally at the moment, it does not mean they are not a rational being. Additionally, functioning rationally cannot be the standard that gives a human a right to life. If functioning rationally is the standard, then a human that is sleeping or in a coma would not have a right to life.


Does ESCR treat a human being merely as a means to an end? It seems clear that it does. ESCR destroys an embryo, which is a human being in the earliest stage of development, by removing its stem cells for research. The research on embryonic stem cells may lead to curing particular diseases, but it kills an embryo as a means to find a cure. Just as it is wrong to remove the organs of one healthy human being only as a means to save the lives of many, so too is it wrong to kill the embryo to use its stem cells for research that may save the lives of many.


Consider other instances where researchers treat humans simply as means. These experiments often lead to horrific acts. An example of this is seen in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, as well as some experiments done on the Jews in WWII. The scientists did not consider the intrinsic value of the human beings who were in the experiments. In the same way, ESCR does not consider the value of the human being in the earliest stage of its development.


It is clear that ESCR is research on an embryo. Werner admits that an embryo is a human being. However, Werner may object and say that an embryo is not a live human being. However, what criteria of life should we use? Werner’s criterion is that a thing must have a brain to be alive. Plants are alive and they do not have brains. But, Werner responds, brains are the necessary condition for a mental life and for personhood. The mental life is the most important for deciding when a being receives a right to life. But the fact may be that the mental life is already in the embryo from the moment of conception, but has yet to be exercised. Werner admits an embryo is alive, but it does not have a mental life. An embryo is only similar to a brain-dead human because it does not have a mental life. However, there is no good reason to accept Werner’s view that a mental life should be the standard that gives someone value and a right to life. If mental life is the standard to guarantee the right to life, then a person who is unconscious would not have this right.


Werner argues that because it is acceptable to harvest a brain-dead human’s organs, so too ought it be acceptable to perform ESCR. However, positing a rational nature as the basis for the intrinsic value of a human being leads to consequences for our definition of death. A human that is still biologically alive still has their rational nature. Even if the organ through which a brain-dead person expresses this nature is not working, the nature is still present.


The fact that ESCR treats humans simply as means and not as ends in themselves is morally repugnant. It is reasonable to believe the embryo ought to have the same moral right to life as adult human beings. ECSR violates this right because this research destroys the embryo. Additionally, the embryo is a person in the earliest stages of development and does not differ in any essential way from other persons. Werner’s argument cannot get started because one finds that every argument required for its validity is flawed. Thus, one should reject Werner’s view of ESCR.


Public Interest Institute’s POLICY STUDY, Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Morally Wrong, can be viewed at


[1] Richard Werner, “An Analogical Argument for Stem Cell Research” in Stem Cell Research, edited by James M. Humber and Robert F. Almeder, (Totowa: Humana Press, 2004): 3.


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