Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Introduction

In our society today, there are many issues that stir up heated debate. The continuing debate over stem cell research and human cloning over the last few years in particular is no exception. There are many arguments supporting both negative and positive effects of the research and the related ethical issues often appear to be at the forefront. This essay aims to examine some of those sides to the debate and also briefly views the issues from the political, economic and sociological perspectives. Included as an appendix, is a number of articles used to support the issues discussed. These articles were chosen for their succinct and logical input to the issues. Cloning and stem cells and their related research and applications is complex, as the following paper discusses.

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What is Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

Before getting into the moral and ethical issues of this subject, we must first understand exactly what human embryonic stem cell research is. Human beings, like all animals, have stem cells that hold the ability to constantly renew themselves. Stem cells found in human adults mature into very specific cells, for example, heart, blood, and brain cells. The exciting discovery found in embryonic stem cells is that they are pluripotent; they have the ability to develop into almost any cell type. These are the cells that are found in a four to five day old embryo. (Marzilli, 144)

The idea is that these highly adaptable stem cells could possibly be used to develop new cells that can be used to replace cells that have been damaged from injuries, such as spinal cord injuries, or diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. These stem cells could also be used in research to create new drugs to treat these and other conditions. Currently, stem cells for this type of research are obtained from aborted fetal tissue, excess embryos from infertility treatments, and in some cases, embryos created specifically for the purpose of harvesting the stem cells. (Lori, 96) Is there a moral or ethical difference in using embryos already in existence that would otherwise be discarded and using embryos created specifically for stem cell research? This is a question that will be addressed in another section.

Ethical Principles to Consider in Stem Cell Research

There are two main ethical principles that are to be considered when discussing the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. One of these principles focuses on the prevention and alleviation of human suffering, the other principle focuses on the value and respect for human life. Which of these principles should have precedence over the other? The harvesting and culturing of embryonic stem cells has great potential to help in the prevention and alleviation of human suffering, but at the same time, harvesting embryonic stem cells is destroying the embryos they were taken from, in essence, destroying human life. (Marzilli, 154) For one of these principles to be founded, the other must be sacrificed.

Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cell Research

To determine whether embryonic stem cell research is the right thing to do or not, we must also evaluate possible alternatives. There has been some research involving adult stem cells that have shown the ability to differentiate into a limited number of different cell types. They have not, however, shown the ability to differentiate into any cell type in the way that embryonic stem cells can. (Lori, 99) Use of adult stem cells does help in avoiding the ethical questions that are raised from the use of embryonic stem cells, but they do not have the proof that these types of stem cells would be as beneficial as embryonic stem cells. Another advantage of using adult stem cells is that the tissues grown utilizing these stem cells can be transplanted into that person without the fear of the body rejecting them.

Argument Against Embryonic Stem Cell Research

When does a human being become a human being? This is the question at the heart of the debate over embryonic stem cell research. Some would argue that because human embryos do not resemble human beings, they should not be considered human beings and that they do not deserve the basic rights of all other living creatures.

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“Pro-life supporters generally believe that a human person comes into existence at conception. Some believe that somatic cell nuclear transfer is sufficiently similar to normal conception with an egg and spermatozoa that a human person also comes into existence during therapeutic cloning. The process of extracting stem cells involves killing the embryo. To many pro-lifers, this is murder. They feel that murdering one person, the embryo, to cure another person of paralysis, or diabetes, or heart disease, etc. can never be justified.” (www.religioustolerance.org) The fact is, human embryos resemble exactly what they are, human beings in the embryonic stage of their development. Human embryos, once formed, are whole living beings that have the ability to develop into adult human beings using resources from within itself. It has been argues that location and stage of development should be a factor in determining whether a human being should be denied rights or not. Does it matter if an embryo is located in a Petri dish or inside a womb? Does it matter if the embryo is one day old or eight months old? If we use these arguments for the basis of our decisions regarding embryonic stem cell research, we are likely to contradict ourselves. Claiming that because a human embryo is not fully developed and able to survive on its own is a good reason to deny them basic human rights would be like saying a baby that was born prematurely, without the ability to survive outside the womb on its own does not deserve every medical attempt to save its life. (Marzilli, 156)

The argument exists that because some embryos are created in Petri dishes and require implantation into a womb to achieve their full potential that they should not be considered human life, and therefore, can be denied basic human rights. Isn’t it true, however, that regardless of location, human embryos, whether located in a dish or a womb, carry the same characteristics? The only difference is one was created naturally inside the mother and the other was created by scientific means.

We fight to save children who were unfortunate to be brought into this world under less than acceptable conditions. Children born in Ethiopia deserve the same fundamental rights as children born in the United States. Food and safety is something that should be afforded to all human beings. Therefore, location is not a basis for determining human rights. An argument that appears to be very contradictory is the argument for the use of existing stem cells and against the creation of new stem cells. This argument has conflicting ethical ideas in its reasoning. Saying that it is wrong to create new embryos specifically for destructive research because they are human beings but it is acceptable to destroy existing embryos because they will be disposed of anyway is contradictory reasoning. (Marzilli, 157) Human value is not determined by its expected lifespan. If it is acceptable to use an embryo that is expected to last only a short period of time is should also be acceptable to perform open brain surgery that will surely end the life of a patient who is already dying of a brain tumor in the interest of medical advancements. Some might argue that allowing the destruction of embryos may lead to an increased tolerance to loss of life, including late-term abortions and treatment withdrawal for the severely disabled. This is why we should put a stop to this abuse and disrespect for human life before it is too late.

Argument for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cells are the only cells with the ability to develop into any other type of cells. Continued research in this area is necessary to discover new treatments for those with incurable conditions like spinal cord injuries, neurological conditions, and anything else we still have not discovered a cure or treatment for. Claiming that a bunch of cells in a Petri dish are the same as a human being is a stretch. An easy way to determine whether human embryonic stem cell research is right would be to look at the possible benefits in contrast to the possible losses. The stem cells currently in use for this type of research are ones that would otherwise be wasted anyway. They are mostly from aborted fetuses and leftovers from infertility treatments. There is no reason to allow them to be wasted without any benefit from them before they are destroyed. (Lori, 104)

To say it is allowable to use some embryos and not others is a contradictory idea. An embryo is an embryo, regardless of where it came from. If an embryo was an aborted fetus, created for use in fertility treatments, or if it was created specifically for stem cell research, there should be no distinction between where these cells came from and there shouldn’t be a ban on stem cell research based on how the cells were obtained. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing abortion in the early stages of development because they do not believe an embryo should be considered to be a human being. (Joseph, 84) The same reasoning can be adopted when considering embryonic stem cell research. An embryo is simply not the same as a fully developed human being.

There has to be research done by many scientists to determine the exact benefits of stem cell research. The day a person takes their first steps after being paralyzed for 10 years, or Alzheimer’s has been completely eliminated will be an incredible breakthrough in modern medicine. This cannot be achieved without continued learning and research in stem cells and human development. (Lori, 111)

From a political perspective, the issues raised by advances in stem cell and cloning research and technology, in both Australia and internationally, could potentially have major diabolical consequences should governments not take appropriate and expedient steps to ensure that the use of such technology progresses within laws and guidelines that uphold moral and ethical values. Government has the most power to implement societal rules and enforce them. (Joseph, 79) However, in regards to cloning and related research (i.e., stem cell research) the ownership of human tissue is a complex matter and the law is unclear. For example, it is not clear who, if anyone owns genetic material or human tissue. And so, it is unclear who has the right to posses it or even use it. The issues relating to stem cell and cloning research has given rise to mixed public reactions.

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From an economic viewpoint, the technological advances in such genetic research would surely bring forth great opportunities for companies or entrepreneurial individuals to make tremendous financial gains should greater freedom for research and experimentation on stem cells and cloning be allowed. If laboratories have strong corporate backing, it may mean that the medical advances could well be more about making money for shareholders and entrepreneurs than it is about helping those with serious medical problems. Perhaps it is possible that without regulation of the industry should it become commonplace, those who can most afford treatments and cures for illnesses, such as diabetes and spinal cord damage, would have greater access to treatment. Governments may need to develop and implement a framework of regulations that have some control over unfair or unethical practices of individuals or business groups (e.g., the exploitation of women). (Joseph, 76)

As research and technological advances in stem cell and cloning research continue to develop, along with the increased promises of medical breakthrough, debate over how such research and its application will undoubtedly continue. Personally, I am in support of research into stem cell research from both adult and embryonic sources for the purposes of disease and other illness prevention and for the possible reversal of diseases and illnesses already affecting a patient. However, I would like to see that the research and the subsequent application of its findings be monitored and tightly regulated by the Government to ensure moral and ethical frameworks are developed. Such a framework would include laws that aim to prevent the exploitation of woman or the ill, and that ensure the reproductive human cloning is not attempted or allowed.

Conclusion

So which side is right? Both arguments have good, valid points. Each side believes they have the right answer. In order to devise an informed opinion, one must fully explore each option and be open to the different ideas, then make their decision based on knowledge and their own personal beliefs. One’s opinion of ethics and morals is based not only on education but also on their culture and beliefs.

The argument against human stem cell research takes the position that a human being is a human being regardless of what stage of development it is in, and we should fight to protect human life. The argument for human stem cell research takes the position that human embryos are not the same as actual human beings and we should use scientific research to improve the quality of life for the future of the human race.

Human embryonic stem cell research is an important scientific breakthrough in the cure of many diseases. There is no cure at this time for Alzheimer’s disease, but with some experimentation and research, there may be a way to cure and possibly completely eliminate it. There are many degenerative conditions that could benefit from this type of research. If we can improve the lives of millions of people by simply harvesting and culturing embryonic stem cells, we are obligated to do so for the benefits that may come from it.

Research on cloning and related technologies is progressing worldwide and Australia’s scientists are playing a role in this. While the scientific potential of embryonic stem cell research is great, the fact remains that the embryos must be destroyed in the process. This will undoubtedly continue to attract debate from both the community and pro-life groups. It has been demonstrated that there is far more to consider than just the scientific potential of the research. In addition, the political issues need to be considered and the governments obviously have an obligation to be aware of, and listen to, the concerns of from within the community and those opposing the directions of the research. Moreover, steps should be taken to ensure that people, in particular woman and those at the lower end of the socio-economic level, are not exploited. It is clear that governments need to weigh up the respective merits of promoting research and development in medical technologies that may improve the quality of life for many people on the one hand, and respecting early human life and dignity on the other.

Works Cited

Marzilli, Alan. Stem Cell Research and Cloning (Point/Counterpoint). Chelsea House Publications, 2007: 144-157.

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Lori Gruen, Laura Grabel, Peter Singer. Stem Cell Research: The Ethical Issues (Metaphilosophy) Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2007: 96-112.

Joseph, Panno. Stem Cell Research: Medical Applications And Ethical Controversy. Checkmark Books, 2006: 76-89.

Robinson B. A. (2005) Therapeutic Cloning: How It Is Done; Possible Benefits. Web.

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