One of the most heated political battles in the United States in recent years has been over the morality of embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic stem cell debate has polarized the country into those who argue that such research holds promises of ending a great deal of human suffering and others who condemn such research as involving the abortion of a potential human life. If any answer to the ethical debate surrounding this particular aspect of stem cell research exists, it is a hazy one at best. The question facing many scientists and policymakers involved in embryonic stem cell research is, which is more valuable – the life of a human suffering from a potentially fatal illness or injury, or the life of human at one week of development? While many argue that embryonic stem cell research holds the potential of developing cures for a number of illnesses that affect many individuals, such research is performed at the cost of destroying a life and should therefore not be pursued.
Stem cells are pluripotent cells of the body which are “undifferentiated.” This means that stem cells can ultimately give rise to any type of body tissue. Thus stem cells have the potential to cure a vast number of diseases and physical ailments including Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and heart disease. Consequently, stem cell research and the development of associated medical applications are of great interest to the scientific and medical community. The area of stem cell research involving human embryonic stem cells is of particular interest in that embryonic stem cells are derived from week-old blastocysts developed from in vitro fertilized eggs. As opposed to adult stem cells, which must undergo a complicated process of de-differentiation prior to application, embryonic stem cells are capable of undergoing directed differentiation. In the second process, scientists solely manipulate the culture in which the embryonic cells are grown or directly alter the genetic content of the cells. Herein lies the heart of the ethical debate over the morality of destroying a human embryo in order to derive embryonic stem cells for treatment.
Those in support of embryonic stem cell research claim that the week-old blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells are derived are merely a cluster of cells and thus do not constitute a human being. Because these cells are “not human,” the embryos should not be afforded the same human rights as are granted to other more advanced stages of cell growth. Many liberals and conservatives alike argue that the potential benefits far outweigh the moral concerns, and for this reason, embryonic stem cell research should be pursued. President Obama issued an executive order revoking President Bush’s previous order that limited funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells for its violation of human rights:
Research involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells has the potential to lead to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions. Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the full range of promising stem cell research should be supported by Federal funds. (White House)
The President’s executive order indicates belief in the medical potential and application embryonic stem cell research. Dr. Dan S. Kaufman, who is an associate director at the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation, supports embryonic stem cell research, arguing that the embryos used in the study of embryonic stem cells come from fertilized zygotes that would be otherwise destroyed:
It is important to recognize that human embryonic stem cells all come from embryos created in excess by fertility clinics. All of these embryos will be destroyed if they are not donated by couples specifically to produce embryonic stem cells for biomedical research. The question then is, what is the most respectful way to treat these valuable embryos? (qtd. in Hubbard)
Dr. Kaufman and other supporters of embryonic stem cell efforts assert that by utilizing embryos for research purposes that were otherwise intended for disposal, researchers are in fact paying more respect to the life of that embryo. Such a claim elicits ardent objections from those who do not support embryonic stem cell research.
Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research argue that the potential benefits of such research do not justify the termination of a young human life. There is no question, they say, that even at the blastocyst stage a young human embryo is a form of human life. Therefore, opponents argue, as a human life, embryos possess the same rights and are thus entitled to the same protections as are afforded to other human beings. Dr. Jim Eckman, a member of advisory board of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research (NCER), is vehemently opposed to embryonic stem cell research because he believes that it is a violation of the life, dignity, and rights of human beings: “Failure to protect embryonic and fetal human life, the most vulnerable of human beings, erodes the moral fiber of our society. An assault against any innocent human being is an assault on humanity in general. Since respect for human life is a cornerstone of civilization, human embryonic stem cell research will weaken the moral foundation of our society” (Eckman). Similar to Eckman, opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that life begins at conception, the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, and consequentially the destruction of a week-old human embryo is the destruction of a life. Though the majority of critical voices appreciate the effort to discover and develop cures for the benefit of suffering individuals through stem cells, they promote utilizing stem cells derived from sources other than human embryos, arguing that such research will not cause harm to another human being. Recent scientific studies have made significant progress studying stem cells obtained from adult cells and umbilical cords, neither of which involves the abortion of a human embryo.
While the arguments in support of human embryonic stem cell research are well intentioned, some have a number of flaws. A claim made by many supporters is that all embryos used in embryonic stem cell research will be destroyed anyway, so it is ultimately more respectful to use the embryo for research than to allow it to go to waste. There are, however, other options for those parents of embryos stored in fertility clinics, one of which is to donate the embryos to other couples struggling with infertility (qtd. in Hubbard). Additionally, the number of embryos ultimately required to fully develop and apply embryonic stem cell research will vastly exceed the number of frozen embryos currently provided by fertility clinics. A further development is the prospect of therapeutic cloning in which embryos are cloned for the sole purpose of research. Farming human embryos sounds like something from a science fiction novel, yet such an idea has been considered increasingly possible with recent scientific advancements. Cloning for scientific purposes begs the question, at what point does life begin such that it becomes unethical to destroy it?
With continuing technological developments, the point at which a child is viable outside the mother’s womb becomes earlier and earlier. Therefore, the attempt to define a point at which life begins past the initial point of conception is futile. As more advanced technologies continue to be developed, society should not continue to define and re-define what constitutes a human life. Life begins at conception, for it is from this point that an embryo contains all genetic information necessary to develop into a human being. Dr. Eckman asserts, “Every human being has a right to be protected from discrimination – Human embryonic stem cell research discriminates against human embryos on the basis of developmental immaturity” (Eckman). As is suggested by Eckman, simply because an embryo at one week is not as physically mature as one at nine months, it is not any less human, and should therefore not be treated as such.
As society further progresses, advancements will continue in the field of science. Humans must be cautious of compromising the moral standards that define human civilization for the further acquisition of scientific knowledge. There comes a point at which manipulation of life’s natural processes crosses an ethical boundary. Although motivated by good intentions, such procedures often involve actions of a morally questionable nature. It is necessary that our practices remain ethical and that we uphold the value of a human life, as this is the cornerstone of human society. Embryonic stem cell research is one such operation that forces scientists, policy makers, and the larger society to define what constitutes a human life and to find an answer to the crucial question: Is it morally acceptable to violate the rights of a human life for the for the sake of medical progress?
Eckman, Dr. Jim. “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Issues in Perspective.
2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
“Fact Sheet on Presidential Executive Order.” The White House. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
Hubbard, James. “Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons.”
Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons. The Survival
Doctor. 2008. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
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Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Research
Debates over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research continue to divide scientists, politicians, and religious groups. However, promising developments in other areas of stem cell research might lead to solutions that bypass these ethical issues. These new developments could help win stem cell research more support from those against embryonic stem cell research since they don't require the destruction of blastocysts.
The most recent research has shown that there are many options available other than working with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells can be obtained from cord blood or derived by manipulating differentiated cells (i.e., skin cells) to revert them to a pluripotent state. These are alternatives that may help broaden the acceptance of stem cell research.
In November 1998 the first published research paper reported that stem cells could be taken from human embryos. Subsequent research led to the ability to maintain undifferentiated stem cell lines (pluripotent cells) and techniques for differentiating them into cells specific to various tissues and organs.
The debates over the ethics of stem cell research began almost immediately in 1999, despite reports that stem cells cannot grow into complete organisms.
In 2000 – 2001, governments worldwide were beginning to draft proposals and guidelines to control stem cell research and the handling of embryonic tissues and reach universal policies to prevent “brain-drains” (emigration of top scientists) between countries.
The CIHR (Canadian Institute of Health Sciences) drafted a list of recommendations for stem cell research in 2001. The Clinton administration drafted guidelines for stem cell research in 2000, but Clinton left office prior to them being released. The Bush government has had to deal with the issue throughout his administration.
Australia, Germany, UK and other countries have also formulated policies.
The excitement about stem cell research is primarily due to the medical benefits in areas of regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning. Stem cells provide huge potential for finding treatments and cures to a vast array of diseases including different cancers, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's, MS, Huntington's, Parkinson's and more.
There is endless potential for scientists to learn about human growth and cell development from studying stem cells.
Use of adult-derived stem cells, from blood, cord blood, skin and other tissues, known as IPSCs, has been demonstrated to be effective for treating different diseases in animal models. Umbilical-cord-derived stem cells (obtained from the cord blood) have also been isolated and utilized for various experimental treatments. Another option is the use of uniparental stem cells. Although these cells lines have some disadvantages or shortcomings compared to embryonic cell lines (they are shorter-lived), there is vast potential if enough money is invested in researching them further, and they are not technically considered individual living beings by pro-life advocates.
The use of embryonic stem cells for research involves the destruction of blastocysts formed from laboratory-fertilized human eggs. For those who believe that life begins at conception, the blastocyst is a human life and to destroy it is unacceptable and immoral. This seems to be the only controversial issue standing in the way of stem cell research in North America.
Where It Stands
In the summer of 2006, President Bush stood his ground on the issue of stem cell research and vetoed a bill passed by the Senate that would have expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Currently, American federal funding can only go to research on stem cells from existing (already destroyed) embryos. Similarly, in Canada, as of 2002, scientists cannot create or clone embryos for research but must use existing embryos discarded by couples.
The UK allows embryonic stem cell cloning.
Use of stem cell lines from alternative non-embryonic sources has received more attention in recent years and has already been demonstrated as a successful option for treatment of certain diseases. For example, adult stem cells can be used to replace blood-cell-forming cells killed during chemotherapy in bone marrow transplant patients. Biotech companies such as Revivicor and ACT are researching techniques for cellular reprogramming of adult cells, use of amniotic fluid, or stem cell extraction techniques that do not damage the embryo, that also provides alternatives for obtaining viable stem cell lines.
Out of necessity, the research on these alternatives is catching up with embryonic stem cell research and, with sufficient funding, other solutions might be found that are acceptable to everyone.
On March 9, 2009, President Obama overturned Bush's ruling, allowing US Federal funding to go to embryonic stem cell research. However, the stipulation applies that normal NIH policies on data sharing must be followed. Despite the progress being made in other areas of stem cell research, using pluripotent cells from other sources, many American scientists were putting pressure on the government to allow their participation and compete with the Europeans. However, many people are still strongly opposed.