Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) regularly acquire nonrandom genomic aberrations during culture, raising concerns about their safe therapeutic application. The International Stem Cell Initiative identified a copy number variant (CNV) amplification of chromosome 20q11.21 in 25% of hESC lines displaying a normal karyotype. By comparing four cell lines paired for the presence or absence of this CNV, we show that those containing this amplicon have higher population doubling rates, attributable to enhanced cell survival through resistance to apoptosis. Of the three genes encoded within the minimal amplicon and expressed in hESCs, only overexpression of BCL2L1 (BCL-XL isoform) provides control cells with growth characteristics similar to those of CNV-containing cells, whereas inhibition of BCL-XL suppresses the growth advantage of CNV cells, establishing BCL2L1 as a driver mutation. Amplification of the 20q11.21 region is also detectable in human embryonal carcinoma cell lines and some teratocarcinomas, linking this mutation with malignant transformation.