Abstract – Discovering, isolating, and culturing stem cells are being described as the single most significant scientific medical breakthrough this century. The cells uniqueness biologically is the virtue that warrants this description. Alone, stem
cells have the ability to infinitely self-regenerate and retain the remarkable capability of differentiating to all forms of cell tissues. In addition to this, culturing stem cells hold much tremendous potential for developments of new regenerative types of medicine that will treat disabling or terminal conditions and diseases that otherwise would not have a cure.
Ironically, the discovery of tremendous medical potentials to improve and prolong lives through stem cells come trenchant, intractable queries about life’s true value. Collecting stem cells from embryos destroys the embryo they are collected from. In other words, the results are an expiration of an embryo in the earliest stage of a human potential life. This is where the issue about life’s value begins to emerge and asks perhaps the most poignant and stark question of if the life of that already in existence should be spared at the expense of an embryo in the earliest form of possible life. Does a life in existence have more value than the potential life of an embryo?
Never the less, the most ethical and moral response to justify this question is in no way obvious. The answer is not apparent immediately, but forces the question of what criteria should be counted as appropriate for assessing any possible response. Even knowing what the correct terminology and concepts for structuring the central questions seems contentious. What does seem clear is how remiss it would be to fail engaging in these questions without commensurating the Importance, complexity, and depth of the issue.
Stem Cell Research Possibilities
Many of the world’s exceptional advancements have come directly from medical research: numerous types of medications for pain, cures for diseases, and infinite amounts of discoveries that have impacted the perception of medical research’s scientific side. Medical research brings good and bad; there have been amazing breakthroughs and devastating failures. The potentials of medical research are either the best or worst thing to happen to humankind. The good and bad of stem cell research are clouded by controversy. Medical histories greatest discoveries could be stem cell research. Although this research has the potential to cure most illnesses and diseases, many ethical and moral issues must be considered. Imagine future capabilities of growing a new heart someone needs, or being able to cure a loved ones disease. These possibilities are closer to being realized with stem cell research which is something all our bodies grow. If researchers are able to figure out how to control stem cells, they will be able to provide cures for a wide variety of debilitating conditions. Researchers are adamant that in the next 10 years, stem cells will provide solutions to questions and heal diseases caused by failure of cells and repairing tissues not capable of self regeneration. Stem cell research can potentially prevent and cure many diseases, but do these potential benefits outweigh the concerns? This debate continues to keep the nation on edge. The issue is complicated by the fact that there are different ways to obtain stem cells for research purposes. As long as means of stem cell research is done in a way that will not harm others, it will serve as a benefit to humanities and our future.
Is stem cell research unethical? This is a question that societies majority faces daily. Like most other public issues, stem cell research has two sides. However, one needs to have an understanding of the study before having a valid opinion. The National Institute of Health says, ” A stem cell is a cell that has the ability to divide (self replicate) for indefinite periods…under the right conditions, or given the right signals, stem cells can give rise (differentiate) to the many different cell types that make up the organism. That is, stem cells have the potential to develop into mature cells that have characteristics, shapes and specialized functions, such as heart cells, skin cells, or nerve cells”(NIH, 2007). Until the last decade most people had not heard of stem cell research, nor did they know what they did. In today’s world stem cell information and their function is readily available. People now learn new information about stem cells from newspaper articles, radio and television news, or the Internet. Currently though the idea of researching stem cells raises strong debate. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, though a proponent of legal abortion, joins many pro-life Christians in fearing the slippery slope in this realm of bioethics: “You don’t need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research. You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in pursuit of the good.” (Christianity Today, 2007) One of the biggest debate reasons is the process in which stem cells are obtained. The main two ways stem cells are obtained is through surplus embryos found at fertility clinics and the discarded fetal tissue of abortions. Stem cells, collected from embryos, are cells that are not developed to their specified stage. Thus, a stem cell is capable of developing into any human cell the adult body has or needs. Week-old embryos are destroyed in the process of collecting stem cells. This seems to be the reason that the issue of stem cell research is almost as debated as abortion. Unlike abortion, in which life is destroyed, stem cells give life because they hold the key to the cures for many disabilities and diseases. Dolly the cloned sheep was born on February 24, 1997, and the United States stem cell research efforts have been a widely debated issue ever since. The debate reached all time highs following President Bush’s August 9, 2001 speech which was in support of funding stem cell research. “The vast majority of Americans strongly support the advancement of biomedical research through the application of their tax dollars,” said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research. “Surveys consistently show Americans want to see greater efforts against serious and life-threatening diseases.” (Bettelheim, A., 2000)
Couples not capable of conceiving their children on their own often try in vitro fertilization. The In vitro fertilization method usually prepares about 10 embryos, but only selects three or four to be implanted. The two ways surplus embryos are handled are freezing spares using liquid nitrogen or to dispose of them. Risks encountered freezing are the embryos dying during freezing or the thawing process. Unused embryos that are not frozen are discarded by being exposed to air, flushed down a sink, or burned. (Faden, R. R., & Gearhart, J.D., 2005). The embryos are still alive when they are frozen or discarded. The solution would be to donate excess embryos for the purpose of research. Scientists would then be able to further the research of stem cell possibilities. There are some cases where excess embryos are not wasted. In these cases embryos are frozen and another couple eventually adopts them. (Hall, C. T., 2006) Although this seems to be a good fate for excess embryos, the risk of dying while thawing remains. The ethical issue arising from the research of stem cells is solely based upon the stem cell source. The argument is reasonable because the cells come from an embryo, which dies once the cells are obtained. In the early stages of stem cell research, all stem cell samples are obtained from in vitro clinics stored excess embryos. Scientists must get permission from donors to collect stem cells and study the embryos. This is the cause of outcry from pro-life communities. Pro-lifers believe that each embryo has the potential of life. The pro-life groups claim the problem can be solved by collecting cells in a more “ethical” way. One alternative would be to collect stem cells from fetuses that are aborted. Another way would be to collect stem cell samples from healthy adult volunteers. This would be an alternate to embryonic research of stem cells, but adult stems do not hold the same potentials.
Stem cell research relating to the Embryos Bill 2002 allowed only excess embryos existing prior to April 5, 2002, to be utilized for researching purpose in accordance with the regime of licensing. It is a fact that the excess embryos would have most likely expired or succumbed anyway. The excess embryos would have still been destroyed however; the expiration process would have been natural. On the surface, it appears there is no difference if harm or the expiration of the excess embryos came from research or natural causes. The embryos expire in both cases. This impression is somewhat oversimplified. Some argue there are distinct ethical and moral differences between omissions and acts and between failing to passively intervene to prevent death and actively, knowingly killing. Although each has the same outcome, the act of bringing death about by oneself is argued as worse morally. Many argue that since both alternatives result in the expiration of the embryo, the logical answer is to go option that has the potential to provide the most benefits. This rationale would most likely change, indeed, if the present alternatives were to change. If, for example, if research were being done on embryos created for research purposes and not pre-existing embryos predetermined to expire. (Rickhard, M., 2002)
Many scientists believe the key to finding cures lays in stem cell research. This research will potentially cure diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Stem cells hold the possibility in becoming the human body’s different types of tissue, bone, muscle, and nerve. Theoretically, stem cells could grow a harvest of organ replacements for virtually all parts of a human’s body. But Ian Wilmut, the scientist whose team at Scotland’s Roslin Institute cloned Dolly — born July 5, 1996, and euthanized in 2003 because of lung disease — says the most interesting thing about the past decade is what has not happened. (Weise, E., n.d.) While ethical issues and questions will continue clouding opinions on the medical advancements made possible by the research of stem cells, these issues and questions must not allow us to ignore all the advancements of stem cell research. The focus should be that scientists are striving to enhance and preserve the gift of life, not how and where cells are collected. Although both sides present reasonable arguments, it is crucial to understand the potentials. Stem cell research holds life enhancing potential. Such benefits may only be a potential, but in order to have the opportunity for exceptional advancements risks must be taken. Many of the world’s greatest advancements were based strictly upon a potential for improvement. When stem cell research potentials are realized, its greatness will provide endless rewards. Philosopher John A. Robertson said, “In taking such a stance, persons define or constitute themselves as highly protective of human life.” Robertson notes, however, that this same symbolic respect for life can be expressed through allowing embryos to be created so that others’ lives can be prolonged, or deaths averted. (Rickhard, M., 2002)
Bettelheim, A. (2000). Senate Argues Promise and Peril Of Human Stem Cell Research. CQ Weekly, 58(8), 357. Retrieved Sunday, April 27, 2007, from the Academic Search Premier database.
Weise, E. (n.d.). Dolly was world’s hello to cloning’s possibilities. USA Today, Retrieved Sunday, April 27, 2007, from the Academic Search Premier database.
The Slope Really Is Slippery. (2007). Christianity Today, Retrieved Sunday, April 27, 2007, from the MasterFILE Premier database.
Rickhard, Maurice (2002, November 12). Parlinfo Web. Retrieved June 2, 2007, from Parliament of Australia Web site: http://wopared.aph.gov.au
The President’s Council on Bioethics. Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry. Washington: Public Affairs, October 2002. 400 pages. Available online: http://www.bioethics.gov/reports/cloningreport/index.html.
National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research. Rockville, MD: NBAC, 1999. Volume I: Report and Recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Volume II: Commissioned Papers, January 2000. Volume III: Religious Perspectives, June 2000. Statement by the President, dated September 13, 1999. Available online: www.georgetown.edu/research/nrcbl/nbac/pubs.html.
Faden, Ruth R., & Gearhart, John D. (2005). “Facts on Stem Cells.”. 2005, 9, Retrieved May 13, 2007, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/.
Hall, Carl T. (2006). “The forgotten embryo: Fertility clinics must store or destroy the surplus that is part of the process.”. SF Gate News, 12, Retrieved April 24, 2007, from http://www.sfgate.com/
National Institutes of Health (NIH), (2007). Stem cell information. Retrieved May 13, 2007, from National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site: http://stemcells.nih.gov/