The use of human embryos for stem cell research has brought forth significant social and ethical dilemmas for the medical community. Any human embryonic stem cell research necessarily involves the destruction of a human embryo which is considered to be ‘human life’ by many and thus equivalent of committing murder. Depending upon the cultural context, different countries in different parts of the world have varying legislation or rules regarding the use of human embryos for stem cell research. Considering the ethical dilemmas and the legislation governing each region, the way forward to conduct such research requires careful examination. Leroy Walters (2004) through his article “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Intercultural Perspective” surveys policies for human embryonic stem cell research in four regions of the world and provides six policy options. This essay aims to examine the six policy options provided by Walters and suggest the best option for limiting research in Australia, which according to some detractors, has some of the most liberal legislation for conducting stem cell research.
Walters gives six options for conducting human stem cell research as:
“Option 1: No human embryo research is permitted, and no explicit permission is given to perform research on existing human embryonic stem cells; Option 2: Research is permitted only on existing human embryonic stem cell lines, not on human embryos; Option 3: research is permitted only on remaining embryos no longer needed for reproduction; Option 4: Research is permitted both on remaining embryos (see Option 3) and on embryos created specifically for research purposes through in vitro fertilization (IVF); Option 5: Research is permitted both on remaining embryos (see Option 3) and on embryos created specifically for research purposes through somatic cell nuclear transfer into human eggs or zygotes; and Option 6: Research is permitted both on remaining embryos (see Option 3) and on embryos created specifically for research purposes through the transfer of human somatic cell nuclei into nonhuman animal eggs, for example, rabbit eggs”(p. 4-5).
According to Walters, Australia has opted for Option (3) for the usage of a human embryo for stem cell research (p.7). Exercise of this option leaves a huge potential for exploitation of the open-ended clause. Further, the Australian terms for Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002, stipulates that “embryos used in research must have been created before 5 April 2002 in order to qualify as “excess” Embryos” (Walters, p.12). According to some estimates, Australia has over 100,000 frozen embryos in 2003. How many of those were created before April 2002 is not accurately known. Australia has been actively pursuing stem cell research with government funding by using the ‘excess’ embryos, in fact well known to all. Thus to limit the usage of the human embryo in stem cell research in Australia would require a more stringent combination of options.
Option 1 seems to be the simplest one; to limit all research by allowing no research using human embryos. Such a move will, however, deny Australians the benefits of stem cell research which promises a stupendous range of applicability ranging from the discovery of the cure for Alzheimer’s disease to possible regeneration of human organs leading to greater human longevity. Thus to shut the door close is not the best option and in any case, specific legislation through the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 exists. Therefore, there is a need to look at yet another option wherein research could be limited and also meet the genuine aspirations of the Australian medical research community. Option (2) is too limiting in its scope, because, stem cell research is very much a frontier science, which would require sufficient investment in time, money, and resources. By stating that only existing stem cell lines would be the limit, would not help further the cause of path-breaking stem cell research. Option (4) runs counter to the basic philosophy of Australian law which prohibits the use of any embryos for reproductive cloning. Since embryos created through IVF are produced specifically for reproduction, diverting such embryos for stem cell research may be tantamount to be a step towards human cloning. The views of Professor Tayyeb as quoted by Walters perhaps offer the best way forward. According to Tayyeb, “the best analogy for using somatic cell nuclei and oocytes to create human embryonic stem cells is the respected practice of donating cells, tissues, or organs for transplantation”(Walters, p.19). Thus Walters reasons that “early embryos and five-day-old blastocysts created through nuclear transfer are not human subjects deserving protection, but are instead undifferentiated bearers of potentially beneficial cells from donors to recipients” (p.19).
Therefore, the best way forward seems to point towards combining the existing legislation under option 3 with clauses drawn from Option (5) which permits research on embryos created specifically for research purposes through somatic cell nuclear transfer into human eggs or zygotes. The combination of the two options with the limiting clause already operant in the Australian Embryo Act will serve the twin purpose of limiting stem cell research in Australia to desired levels while at the same ensuring that the Australian Medical Research community does not miss the biotechnological revolution in this new exciting field of medical science.
Walters, Leroy. 2004. Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: an Intercultural Perspective. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 14(1), pp. 3-38. Web.