Research Paper On Stem Cell Research: Ethical Issues
Stem cells are vital in the growth and development of organisms. These cells also function as an internal repair system, undergoing unlimited division to replace old and damaged cells in a living person or animal (Monroe, Miller, & Tobis, 2008). After dividing, a new stem cell may develop into another type of cell or remain a stem cell (Monroe et al., 2008). These cells are unspecialized and have the potential to develop into other types of specialized cells like muscle, blood, brain, and other types of tissue cells during early life and during growth (Monroe et al., 2008). Stem cell research basically refers to the investigation of the basic cells (stem cells) which develop to form organisms. This investigation is done in a laboratory, where the cells are cultured (grown) and tests are done to study the characteristics of these cells (Monroe et al., 2008). Stem cell research has great potential to help in the development of therapies for human various diseases, making it of great importance (Monroe et al., 2008).
Until recently, stem cell research mainly used embryonic stem cells taken from early embryos (made through in vitro fertilization) through a process which leads to their destruction (Monroe et al., 2008). Embryonic stem cells are also be obtained from the tissues of aborted embryos (Monroe et al., 2008). Adult stem cells have also become of great use to scientists in the recent past. Adult stem cells can be obtained from tissues of patients without causing harm (Monroe et al., 2008). “Adult” in this case only means that the cell is obtained from an organism that has developed fully. It could be a child, an adult, or from the placenta of a newborn (Monroe et al., 2008). The main ethical dilemma associated with stem cell research is the method used to obtain stem cells (Monroe et al., 2008). Stem cell research using embryonic stem cells translates to the destruction of living human embryos, creating an ethical conflict between its proponents, who believe it will lead to health advances, and opponents, who regard embryos as living human beings hence their destruction as murder (Monroe et al., 2008).
Recent Data, Research, and Results
In spite of the ethical issues involved, recent research shows that most Americans support embryonic stem cell research overwhelmingly. According to a 2010 poll by HealthDay, supporters include groups that may be generally assumed to be against it like Catholics, born-again Christians, and Republicans (Gardner, 2010). This poll was done online from 28 to 30th September and participants were 2,113 adults of 18 years and above (Gardner, 2010). This was at a time when legal arguments involving stem cells research were going on in the US. About 72% of the surveyed adults hold that scientists should be permitted to use the extra embryonic stem cells that remain during procedures of in vitro fertilization to search for treatments or prevention of diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease among others (Gardner, 2010). 58% of Republicans hold that stem cell research should be allowed while 24% oppose it (Gardner, 2010). 58% of born-again Christians and 69% of Catholics believe that stem cell research is acceptable while 22% of born-again Christians and 16% of Catholics are against it (Gardner, 2010). 62% of respondents disagreed that embryonic stem cell research should be forbidden on the basis that it is immoral or unethical (Gardner, 2010). Only 12% oppose the use of stem cells for research, a figure close to that of similar poll in 2005 (Gardner, 2010). Therefore, only a relatively small number of people think that stem cell research should be banned for being immoral or unethical. The poll shows that that most of the public holds the belief that important therapeutics will be discovered through stem cell research.
President Obama in 2009 signed an executive order which removed restrictions on the funding of stem cell research by the federal government (Gardner, 2010). This was contrary to the 2001 restriction to the funding of embryonic stem cell research by President Bush. According to Obama, the government had in the past made the error of mixing up advanced science and morality (Gardner, 2010). This shows that even the leader of the nation sees the need for stem cell research and that the potential ethical problems are avoidable. This support by the president may be part of the reason for the high support of stem cell research by the public.
Both Sides of the Issue and My Opinion
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research like most scientists believe that stem cells obtained from embryos are a potential source of cures for Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, cancer, genetic diseases, and disorders of the immune system among others (Monroe et al., 2008). Scientists believe that embryonic stem cell research has unlimited value in understanding human growth and the development and treatment of illnesses (Monroe et al., 2008). Actual cures are however yet to be developed through embryonic stem cell research since research has not yet advanced to the level of producing even a single cure (Monroe et al., 2008). More than 100 million Americans have diseases that may be better treated or even cured through embryonic stem cell therapy. Some scientists believe that this form of therapy may have the greatest potential to relieve human suffering since the development of antibiotics (Monroe et al., 2008). Many pro-lifers also believe the appropriate moral and religious option is to use embryonic stem cell therapy to save already existing human life (Monroe et al., 2008).
Most pro-life organizations and steadfast pro-lifers consider the destruction of an embryo, which occurs during the extraction of embryonic stem cells, equal to murdering human life (Eurostemcell, 2011). These individuals hold that life starts at conception hence it is morally unacceptable to destroy a pre-born life (Eurostemcell, 2011). To these individuals, the development of a baby from a fertilized egg is continuous process and it would be arbitrary to try to pinpoint the beginning of personhood (Eurostemcell, 2011). According to them, the embryo of a human is a human being only that he/she is in the embryonic stage, the same case as an infant is a human being only that it is in the stage of infancy (Eurostemcell, 2011). Even though an embryo does not yet have the features of a person, it is in the process of becoming a person hence should be treated with the dignity that a person deserves, these opponents claim (Eurostemcell, 2011). To them, it is morally wrong to destroy an embryo that is a few days old, even if to save or decrease the suffering of already born children and adults (Eurostemcell, 2011).
Many of these staunch pro-lifers also believe that enough attention has not been given to the research of adult stem cells, considering the fact that they have successfully been used to cure many illnesses already (Eurostemcell, 2011). They also add that stem cell research has given too little attention to the potential use of umbilical cord blood rather than using embryos (Eurostemcell, 2011). These opponents of embryonic stem cell research also argue against it based on the fact that it has not yet produced any cure (Eurostemcell, 2011).
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research respond to the aforementioned arguments of its opponents firstly by stating that an early embryo does not have the physical, emotional, or psychological characteristics associated with a person, especially with the fact that it is not even usually imbedded into the uterus (Eurostemcell, 2011). Therefore, they argue, it has no interests of being protected hence we can use it to help patients (who are real persons). The second argument that proponents use to refute the claims of opponents is that without being transferred to the uterus of a woman, there is no way the embryo will develop into a child (Eurostemcell, 2011). Its development therefore relies on external help. Furthermore according to scientists, embryos made for in vitro fertilization usually have a low probability of developing into successful births (Eurostemcell, 2011). They therefore conclude that something that only has the potential to become a person cannot be treated as though it were really a person (Eurostemcell, 2011).
The third response that proponents of stem cell research give to refute that embryonic stem cell research kills human life is that an early embryo does not have any moral status (Eurostemcell, 2011). Fertilized human eggs cannot be considered as humans but rather as body parts until they develop to an extent of surviving independently, they argue. Therefore, they claim an early embryo does not have any moral status (Eurostemcell, 2011). They add that embryos should be treated just like other people’s property (Eurostemcell, 2011). They conclude by saying that destruction of an embryo prior to implantation does not harm it since it has no purposes, beliefs, or aims (Eurostemcell, 2011).
The argument by opponents that research has paid little attention to adult stem cells means they would like it to totally shift from using embryonic stem cells to using alternative sources of stem cells. A response that can be used to settle this argument is by Mr. Bernard Siegel, the founder of the World Stem Cell Summit. According to Siegel, there is a different use for each cell type for different objectives; this he says referring to induced pluripotent (reprogrammed adult stem cells), adult, and embryonic stem cells (as cited in Freedman, 2008). To him, some cells are better for determining the origin of an illness; some may be useful for drug discovery; while others may be prepared for cell transplant (as cited in Freedman, 2008). He says all these cells are needed (as cited in Freedman, 2008). Therefore, embryonic stem cells are essential in stem cell research and are a core part of it.
In my opinion, embryonic stem cell research should be allowed and supported through means such as government funding. This is because it is of great importance to the discovery of new therapies. Even if it has not yet produced a cure, it has the potential to develop many in the future (Monroe et al., 2008). Additionally it is still needed in research since as mentioned earlier, all forms of cells are needed in stem cell research, including embryonic stem cells. I also support the argument by its proponents that an early embryo, which has not yet even implanted into the uterus cannot be treated like it were a real person. In fact most embryonic stem cells are obtained from embryos developed for in vitro fertilization, hence are even outside the human body. These early embryos (less than 12 days-old) lack the characteristics of a person like physical feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, or even goals hence cannot be considered as one (Eurostemcell, 2011). I agree with the argument that they cannot develop into a child unless they are facilitated to get into the human body (uterus) through external influences. Additionally, even though they may manage to be inserted into the uterus, scientists point out that there is still a low probability that these embryos may develop to the extent of leading to successful births (Eurostemcell, 2011). I hence agree that they cannot be treated as if they were real persons since their development into persons has a low guarantee. Therefore, there is no way their destruction through embryonic stem cell research can translate to the murder of a human being or a person.
The other fact is that is that there are too many embryos in the stored in freezers in vitro fertilization clinics. Being in excess, many will eventually be thawed and disposed (Freedman, 2008). I believe that science therefore offers the opportunity to make better use of them rather than being discarded. The donors of the eggs and sperms that make these embryos may allow them to be discarded or they can donate them to research institutions where they may be used to one day develop treatments and cures for patients with serious illnesses.
However, firm ethical guidelines are needed when working with all forms of stem cells. Scientists therefore need to work in collaboration with patient advocates, ethicists, and lawyers to create strict rules governing this field of research (Freedman, 2008). These guidelines should require oversight of all work involving embryos. The guidelines may include the requirement that cells and embryos must be procured through informed consent, without any money being paid for them; this may prevent their commercialization (Freedman, 2008). A separate board consisting of ethicists and scientists who are embryonic stem cell research savvy should also be instituted to review all proposed research. There should also be a limit of the age of the embryos used for research. Oversight and reviews may also help to ensure that more mature embryos are not used for research in order to avoid serious moral implications (Freedman, 2008).
How Writing this Paper Changed my Views and the Reasons for Choosing it
Writing this paper changed my views from initially seeing embryonic stem cell research as morally wrong to seeing it as a worthwhile course for the benefit of humanity if done responsibly. Furthermore, I have come to see that it may help to make better use of extra embryos for in vitro fertilization that would otherwise be discarded, becoming of no benefit to anyone. I was also initially of the opinion that scientists should only work with adult, induced pluripotent, or umbilical cord stem cells instead of using embryonic stem cells, but I have come to learn that research with all is still in its early stages, making the use of all vital. I chose this topic because it touches on social issues of ethics and morality, health, and politics. I wanted to research on these areas to get detailed information of how stem cell research (especially embryonic) relates to these issues. It is an issue that receives different views from its proponents and opponents, so that research on it would help to find which side has a stronger foundation in its argument or opinion.
In conclusion, embryonic stem cell research offers the greatest moral and ethical challenges when it comes to stem cell research. As seen in this discussion, it aims to benefit humanity through the development of therapies for human diseases, but it receives heavy criticism that it ends one life for the benefit of another, which is unethical. However as seen in this discussion, when done in a regulated and responsible manner, it does not end human life but in fact works to better and even save it. Cures developed through this research are still in the process of being developed and may be available in the future. Medical discoveries are rarely made by accident but through years of trial and error. Therefore, more support and funding will need to be given to embryonic stem cell research, knowing that it may hold future solutions to multiple serious illnesses suffered by humans today.
Eurostemcell,. (2011). Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma. EuroStemCell. Retrieved 14 April 2015, from http://www.eurostemcell.org/factsheet/embyronic-stem-cell-research-ethical-dilemma
Freedman, J. (2008). America debates stem cell research. New York: Rosen Central.
Gardner, A. (2010). Most Americans Back Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Poll - US News. US News & World Report. Retrieved 14 April 2015, from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/managing-your-healthcare/research/articles/2010/10/07/most-americans-back-embryonic-stem-cell-research-poll
Monroe, K., Miller, R., & Tobis, J. (2008). Fundamentals of the stem cell debate. Berkeley: University of California Press.