The Study of the Social and Moral Implications of Stem Cell Research

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Stem Cell Research (“SCR”) is no longer confined to the scientific realm. It has to be analysed using an ethical framework. The study of the social and moral implications of SCR falls under bioethics (Brady, 1996). According to Dahnke and Dreher “bioethics is the sub discipline of applied ethics that studies the moral questions surrounding biology, medicine, and the health professions in general” (2006, p.10). It is important to focus on SCR from the perspective of bioethics because the materials used for the experiments are not only chemicals and scientific equipment; these are human embryos (Lazarus, 2003). SCR using human embryos must be totally banned all over the world. But the potential to cure debilitating disease must not be set aside. There must be a way to resolve this ethical dilemma.

Background

SCR is a divisive topic because it can easily create factions. It is an understatement to say that it is the root cause of heated debates in the field of biomedical science. The use of stem cells is an issue that is not easy to resolve. On the one hand, there is a promise of a cure. Scientists excitedly discussed the possibilities of helping those who are suffering from degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The excitement felt by the scientific community is rooted in the fact that stem cells are building blocks for creating organs.

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On the other side of the conflict, there are those who can see life in the unformed human embryos. They use the moral framework to talk about the sanctity of life; they pointed out that in order for stem cells to be utilized there is a need to destroy a human embryo. If a human embryo is placed in the womb of a mother, it will grow into a baby. The opposing side argued that human embryos are not the matter of organics. They also fear the consequences in case SCR becomes a standard medical procedure.

In order to resolve this dilemma, it is imperative to point out that there are three major ways to harvest stem cells so that they can be used for SCR. The first one is to use human embryos donated by parents when they have gone through the process of in-vitro fertilization. The second method is to create human embryos not through the normal process of fertilization but through somatic cell nuclear transfer (“SCNT”). In regards to SCNT the process requires the use of an egg cell minus its nucleus (Sutovsky, 2007). But the genetic material is directly implanted into the egg cell using the donor’s DNA. In other words, this process uses techniques borrowed from cloning.

The third method is still in the experimental stage but bolstered by the discovery that stem cells can be generated from skin cells. If this is proven to be true, then, there is a way to harvest stem cells without the need to destroy human embryos. However, this method is a recent discovery and, therefore, requires further study. Thus, there are scientists and ordinary citizens who intend to focus on more reliable sources of stem cells, the ones from human embryos.

Case Study

Since human embryos and SCNT are the two reliable sources of stem cells, there is a need to use an ethical framework to find out if these practices are acceptable from a moral point of view (Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2008). The Virtue Theory and Deontology Theory of ethics will be used to analyse this issue.

According to the Virtue Theory of ethics, the rightness and wrongness of the action is dependent on the motive of the person behind such an action. At first glance it seems that this ethical framework can be used to justify the destruction of human embryos to harvest stem cells because the scientists were merely in pursuit of a cure. But a closer examination of the said theory will reveal that virtue is rooted in the desire for moral excellence. If the destruction of human embryos is comparable to the destruction of life then this ethical framework cannot be used to justify this action.

The Deontology Theory, on the other hand, does not offer any justification to proceed with human embryonic SCR or SCNT. In fact, deontology does not provide any grey area. According to this ethical theory, it is man’s duty to act morally and to do what is right regardless of the consequence (Bowie, 1999). Therefore, once it was established that the destruction of human embryos is morally reprehensible act, there is no room to manoeuvre and argue in favour of SCR.

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There are those who will continue to insist that SCR must be funded by the government. They will continue to reason out that the benefits of SCR far outweigh the risk. They will also argue that ethical frameworks are not practical when it comes to the real world. In the real world people need to compromise because there are various competing factors (Swanson, 1999). It is not enough to simply write down rules to govern people because there are times when it is critical to bend the rules.

For those who are not willing to go through the process of discussing the issue through an ethical framework, there is only one option left and it is to appeal to them using a more practical approach (Rychlak, 1994). Therefore, it is important to take a closer look at the claims made by supporters of embryonic stem cell research and SCNT.

It has to be pointed out that SCNT is not a viable option even if supporters argue that this is not comparable to a fertilized human embryo because it uses the DNA of the donor and not a sperm and egg cell from a set of parents. However, the end result of SCNT is a cloned human being. In this process the researchers will not allow the embryo to mature into a baby because the embryo is destroyed after the SCNT process has been completed. Nevertheless, the initial stages are simiar to cloning. Since there is a law against human cloning it is imperative that SCNT must be banned. There is only one option left and that is to harvest stem cells using a novel technology that derives stem cells from skin cells. But this is a new discovery and it will take years before scientists can confirm that the stem cells harvested is of the same quality as those harvested from human embryos.

Conclusion

There is no ethical framework that can be used to justify the destructin of human embryos. Once it was established that the destruction of human embryos is a morally reprehensible act, there is no way to justify this particular action using deontology or virtue ethics. But supporters of SCR will point to the inherent weakness of the different ethical frameworks. However, a more practical approach to determine the significance of SCR will reveal that no scientific breakthrough was ever recorded that could be used to develop a cure for debilitating disease. It is, therfore, more practical to use research funds for other research purposes.

References

Bowie, N. (1999). “A Kantian approach to business ethics”, companion to philosophy, 15-35.

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Brady, N. (1996). Ethical universals in international business. New York: Springer.

Dahnke, M., & Dreher, H., (2006). “Defining ethics and applying the theories”, in V. Lachman (Ed.), Applied ethics in nursing, 3-14.

Ferrell, O., Fraedrich, J., & Ferrell, L. (2008). Business ethics: Ethical decision Making and Cases. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kubasek, N. K., Brennan, B.A., & Browne, N. (2009). The legal environment of Business: A Critical Thinking Approach. New Jersey: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Lazarus, H. (2003). Allogenic Stem Cell Transplantation. New Jersey: Human Press, Inc.

Rychlak, J. (1994). Logical learning theory: a human teleology and its empirical Support. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Swanson, D. (1999). “Business ethics and economics”, A Companion to philosophy , 28-36.

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