Stem cells are biological cells found in all multi cellular organisms. They have a unique feature of a remarkable potential to self renew and form other specialized types of cells in addition, they can produce more stem cells found in the human body. Scientists confirmed the existence of three different types of stem cells, embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells and induced stem cells. Among these three stem cells, the embryonic stem cells are regarded as the cells with the highest potential because they can cell divide themselves to form over the 220 different types of cells found in the human body. While this is the case in embryonic stem cells, the adult stem cells are termed as insufficiently functional because these cells with time specialize into specific organs hence they can only form a small number of new different cell types.
It’s only recently in 2006 that the scientific researchers made another discovery after they were able to identify conditions that would allow them to use adult stem cells by changing their genetic construction to form a new type of cell called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Advance research about stem cell research continues to be conducted as many find it a fascinating modern-day biology discovery. Research on this field has over the years raised queries with the main opposition coming from religious and social conservatives who are also known as pro life activists among other law officials and medical ethicists.
This paper sets to discuss the controversial ethical issue about the research whereby, the discussions will primarily focus on the supporting and the opposing views that relate to the issue including the ethical and legal issues surrounding the topic in an attempt to clarify some of the moral and conceptual distinctions connected with the subject. An article was written by Levin & Keiper (2010 p. 110) “states that the main controversial point in the stem cell research is that as much as the embryonic stem research (ESR) can be used to save a life during treatments, it requires that there be the destruction of embryos.” The creation of human embryos or embryos for research purposes; or (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death”. (Levin & Keiper 2010, 110)
The Bush administration established a compromise federal policy in 2001 which allowed the use of federal money in support of ESR on cell lines created. The term lines included: (1) the donor should be aware of every detail about the research and should give his/her consent; (2) the embryos collected should be used for reproductive purposes; (3) the money to fund the research would only apply to any lines created before the announcement that is, before the date of the policy. According to former President Bush, this step would ensure that the federal money would not be viewed as a way of encouraging the destruction of embryos in the future. But the last element did generate controversies among some states that went ahead to fund the research by individual means while others objected to the ESR. Needless to say, answers that can be used to ethically justify the questions regarding this research are far from being the obvious ones. There have been several lawsuits that have been filed relating to embryonic stem cell research and many other federal researchers have raised questions regarding access to existing stem lines
Ethical and legal perspectives
The ethical perspectives that are in play in regards to embryonic stem cell research are split right down the middle. On one hand, some feel it is an achievement in the medical field. On the other hand, some feel the destruction of an embryo presents a moral problem because it involves having to favour one important principle over another important principle. These two principles involve alleviating human suffering while the other is upholding and respecting the value of human life. The truth is that the two principles cannot be all together respected given the evidence that in order to alleviate suffering to an individual another individual has to give up living in order for it to be possible to harvest human embryonic stem cells and this clearly is violating the value of human life.
Critics of embryonic stem cell research or destruction of cells consider a human embryo being to be a human being that does not need to suffer. According to the authors, life starts immediately at conception (at the time when an egg is grown). For this reason, the destruction of a human embryo is perceived as being morally repulsive even if it is in furtherance of medical research. To even pass this through, a U.S. District Court in Columbia is said to have gone ahead and halted funding of embryonic stem cell research. This was definitely a move that ultimately created room for medical research to be carried out in harmony with respect for life and human dignity.
The ethical debate generated by the issue of embryonic stem cell research has continued to rage on with clashes seen from the government, religious groupings and so forth. Sansom ( 2010, 162) notes “ since a normal zygote has the organic capability of developing into an embryo, and the embryo into a foetus, and the foetus into a newborn human, we must say that the zygote is at least a potential human.” Sansom (2010, 163) adds “that getting the distinction between “a potential human and an actual human” is not clearly spelt out and this does not clearly define an ethical difference for us.”
It’s common for Vitro fertilization clinics to create too many embryos as opposed to their need during the fertility treatment period this results in having excess embryos which would be automatically be discarded after some time. After a thorough search, one source estimated about 400,000 stored embryos by mid-2003 as the number continues to grow each year. Those proposed to this research hold that such embryos can be used to save lives instead. Alvarez et al (2010, 58) “The question of the use and destruction of human embryos in scientific requires greater consideration than the administration has given it.”
However, some are in opposition to the research based on medical reasons. Evidence shows that over time, the embryonic stem cells that have been stored over a long period of time would cause some abnormalities during cell creation leading to the creation of cancer cells. Mouse ES was first cultivated at the university of Cambridge in 1981 by researchers.
However, in research conducted on mice, the results showed that 20 percent of them did not survive from brain tumours after being treated for Parkinson disease using embryonic stem cells. According to many who oppose the research, the policy decision made by the president did not seem to relevantly give any moral status for the treatment of human embryos as less human beings and intentionally destroying them for scientific research. Beauchaine (2009 p.12) notes “President Obama’s election resulted in the lifting of severe restrictions on embryonic stem cell research put in place by his predecessor.” It is about whether American taxpayers will be forced to be accomplices in research that encourages killing human beings” this article according to many in a proposition for the research find as a misinterpretation of the presidents ruling.
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that human suffering can be alleviated as a result of research conducted on embryonic stem cells. They argue that finding of diseases will go a great way as a result of this therefore, even as many continue to find the government involvement in the funding of stem cell research as a waste of public money, some organizations are generously helping the government and those who support the research program through donating more funds for the program. Moreover, other governments across the globe are also involved in direct funding of the research in hope that it will be used for positive purposes. This survey clearly indicates that most people regardless of their religious beliefs or their political affiliation they are in support of the embryonic cell research program as they hope it will benefit those in need of the treatment.
The main point of embryonic cell research is to reproduce other cells with different functions to be used by the human body from body cells. Mackenzie uses an example of a spinal injury patient receiving treatment through stem cell research to try and reconstruct damaged tissues. A report from the United States National Institutes of Health’s Guidelines, affirms that “research involving human pluripotent stem cells promises new treatments and possible cures for many debilitating diseases and injuries, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, burns and spinal cord injuries” (Mackenzie 2010 p. 39).
Those in favour of embryonic stem cell research feel that the assurance of availability of raw materials (destroyed stem cells) is a sure guarantee of the development of various cures and treatments for ailments such as heart diseases, forms of cancer, and Parkinson’s diseases and so forth that affect people. This is due to the fact there exist more than sixty-nine varieties of diseases or types of sicknesses that are getting medical attention while more than 1600 clinical research are using adult stem cells for treatment. “In 2008, scientists at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, led by Lorenz Studer, reported in Nature Medicine that they had treated mice that had been bred to have a condition like Parkinson’s disease, with cloned embryonic stem cells” (Skene 2010, 220)
Mackenzie argues that the application of embryonic cells can be used for medical therapies through the creation of organs that are transplanted to replace the damaged ones. “Cells in the developing human foetus, at a later stage than embryos, are already committed to a certain range of types –skin and nerves, say – but are still flexible.” Mackenzie (2010, 39). For example, a spinal injury patient can benefit from this as his/her damaged cells are replaced by new ones created from stem cells using this research method. This can also benefit anyone suffering from heart diseases where destroyed muscles are able to be replaced by new ones.
Schechter (2010, 605) reports, “research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) holds immense potential to provide improvements in healthcare by providing cellular developmental understanding.” People that are pro- embryonic stem cell research are buoyed by the certainty of a provision of a stage where the development of body organs in the laboratory is possibly achievable. This they argue can be used as implants in curing ailments. This application of embryonic stem cell research can be put to good use in terms of medical therapies in the course of creating body organs to later be transplanted and replace damaged organs.
The main controversial point in embryonic cell research is that as much as it (ESR) can be used to save a life during treatments; it requires that there be the destruction of embryos. Schechter (2010, 606) notes “the debate over hesc research has traditionally focused on the ethical controversy over embryo destruction”
According to Skene, an Act signed into law by President Clinton ensured that Federal funds were not authorized for use in research of development of embryos or the involvement in the destruction and damaging of embryos. Critics of this research have argued that government should not use public funds to fund “killing”. The United States has always held medical progress as a high priority. Federal funding, however, is generally peppered with restrictions, mainly due to moral concerns and limitations. In addition, according to the new policy, there are no virtual limits on the funding for the research. This means, there are no restrictions and the only by law that is available on such funding is that they have to be reauthorized every year. Further instability on the restrictions is because of the approval of President Obama and the calling of congress to pass all new laws that are concerned with the advancement of embryo-destructive research. In his remarks, while trying to explain his action, Obama explained that he was aware of the concerns being raised by a number of people regarding the research but still claimed that together with his administration and a majority of the American people have approved the implementation and are in support of the research hence he would ensure his administration pursue this issue effectively.
U. S Catholic Bishops have gone ahead to condemn former President Obama’s decision for allowing the research to be funded by the government and they hoped that he would reconsider his decision. As they explained further that the president’s action did not consider the embryos as full human beings. Alvare et al (2010, 59) “at no point has the president offered any arguments for treating human embryos as less than human beings and intentionally destroying them for scientific research.”
Robinson (2010) says that at this point advocates of embryonic stem cell research will try and explain that at times the fertilized egg fails to implant itself in the uterus. They argue that as much as it can hold human life, in this case, the presence of that life can and will only be confirmed after successful implantation of the embryo only on the woman’s uterus. Consequently, it should not be considered as a human being until this is done. Robinson (2010 39) adds “arguments over the stem-cell research have emerged as abortion debate, with pro-life campaigners seizing on stem-cell research as another assault on the sanctity of life.”
Today the advancement of technology has greatly simplified the heights that scientists have to go through as they try to find cures for the many diseases/ailments present in the world. Despite this fervent approach towards medical research, some of the procedures used are very controversial. Embryonic cell research is one among the many research programs being conducted that is promising effective solutions to the medical department in terms of treatment for patients. The advantages and disadvantages of the research program should critically be analyzed for the controversial issues regarding ethical and moral aspects of embryonic cell research. The debate regarding the research is because the issue of life cannot be measured by anything and the subject of abortion or simply someone dying of an illness that can be cured is a calamity. To many, it would be difficult to answer the question of between the two the embryo and the person suffering who holds the highest value. It becomes quite confusing to regard and explain how one life can be used to save another and be justified by the courts. Clearly, the embryonic cell research benefit impact of having advanced treatment not only lies in the half politics but also in what people want (public opinion) the debate of the research will continue if clear guidelines and understanding of its benefit is not a given priority by the governments that support the stem cell research.
Alvare H. et al. (2010). Human Embryos in the Age of Obama. First Things, 20612- 19.
Beauchaine, J. (2009). Pre-Born Again. The Village Voice, 54(25) 12-19.
Levin, Y. & Keiper, A. (2010). Stem Cells, Life and the Law. Human Life Review, 36(3), 110-112.
MacKenzie, D. (2010). Saved by the cell. New Statesman, 139(5029) 38-40.
Robinson, D. (2010). The American right to life. New Statesman, 139 (5029) 39.
Sansom, D. L. (2010). How Much Respect Do We Owe The Embryo? Limits to Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Ethics & Medicine, 26(3) 161- 173.
Schechter, J. (2010). Promoting Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: A Comparison of Policies in the United States and the United Kingdom and Factors Encouraging Advancement. Texas International Law Journal, 45(3) 603-629.
Skene, L. (2010). Recent Developments in Stem Cell Research: Social, Ethical, and Legal Issues for the Future. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 17(2) 211-245.