One of the most heated political battles in the United States in recent years has been over the morality of embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic stem cell debate has polarized the country into those who argue that such research holds promises of ending a great deal of human suffering and others who condemn such research as involving the abortion of a potential human life. If any answer to the ethical debate surrounding this particular aspect of stem cell research exists, it is a hazy one at best. The question facing many scientists and policymakers involved in embryonic stem cell research is, which is more valuable – the life of a human suffering from a potentially fatal illness or injury, or the life of human at one week of development? While many argue that embryonic stem cell research holds the potential of developing cures for a number of illnesses that affect many individuals, such research is performed at the cost of destroying a life and should therefore not be pursued.
Stem cells are pluripotent cells of the body which are “undifferentiated.” This means that stem cells can ultimately give rise to any type of body tissue. Thus stem cells have the potential to cure a vast number of diseases and physical ailments including Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and heart disease. Consequently, stem cell research and the development of associated medical applications are of great interest to the scientific and medical community. The area of stem cell research involving human embryonic stem cells is of particular interest in that embryonic stem cells are derived from week-old blastocysts developed from in vitro fertilized eggs. As opposed to adult stem cells, which must undergo a complicated process of de-differentiation prior to application, embryonic stem cells are capable of undergoing directed differentiation. In the second process, scientists solely manipulate the culture in which the embryonic cells are grown or directly alter the genetic content of the cells. Herein lies the heart of the ethical debate over the morality of destroying a human embryo in order to derive embryonic stem cells for treatment.
Those in support of embryonic stem cell research claim that the week-old blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells are derived are merely a cluster of cells and thus do not constitute a human being. Because these cells are “not human,” the embryos should not be afforded the same human rights as are granted to other more advanced stages of cell growth. Many liberals and conservatives alike argue that the potential benefits far outweigh the moral concerns, and for this reason, embryonic stem cell research should be pursued. President Obama issued an executive order revoking President Bush’s previous order that limited funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells for its violation of human rights:
Research involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells has the potential to lead to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions. Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the full range of promising stem cell research should be supported by Federal funds. (White House)
The President’s executive order indicates belief in the medical potential and application embryonic stem cell research. Dr. Dan S. Kaufman, who is an associate director at the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation, supports embryonic stem cell research, arguing that the embryos used in the study of embryonic stem cells come from fertilized zygotes that would be otherwise destroyed:
It is important to recognize that human embryonic stem cells all come from embryos created in excess by fertility clinics. All of these embryos will be destroyed if they are not donated by couples specifically to produce embryonic stem cells for biomedical research. The question then is, what is the most respectful way to treat these valuable embryos? (qtd. in Hubbard)
Dr. Kaufman and other supporters of embryonic stem cell efforts assert that by utilizing embryos for research purposes that were otherwise intended for disposal, researchers are in fact paying more respect to the life of that embryo. Such a claim elicits ardent objections from those who do not support embryonic stem cell research.
Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research argue that the potential benefits of such research do not justify the termination of a young human life. There is no question, they say, that even at the blastocyst stage a young human embryo is a form of human life. Therefore, opponents argue, as a human life, embryos possess the same rights and are thus entitled to the same protections as are afforded to other human beings. Dr. Jim Eckman, a member of advisory board of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research (NCER), is vehemently opposed to embryonic stem cell research because he believes that it is a violation of the life, dignity, and rights of human beings: “Failure to protect embryonic and fetal human life, the most vulnerable of human beings, erodes the moral fiber of our society. An assault against any innocent human being is an assault on humanity in general. Since respect for human life is a cornerstone of civilization, human embryonic stem cell research will weaken the moral foundation of our society” (Eckman). Similar to Eckman, opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that life begins at conception, the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, and consequentially the destruction of a week-old human embryo is the destruction of a life. Though the majority of critical voices appreciate the effort to discover and develop cures for the benefit of suffering individuals through stem cells, they promote utilizing stem cells derived from sources other than human embryos, arguing that such research will not cause harm to another human being. Recent scientific studies have made significant progress studying stem cells obtained from adult cells and umbilical cords, neither of which involves the abortion of a human embryo.
While the arguments in support of human embryonic stem cell research are well intentioned, some have a number of flaws. A claim made by many supporters is that all embryos used in embryonic stem cell research will be destroyed anyway, so it is ultimately more respectful to use the embryo for research than to allow it to go to waste. There are, however, other options for those parents of embryos stored in fertility clinics, one of which is to donate the embryos to other couples struggling with infertility (qtd. in Hubbard). Additionally, the number of embryos ultimately required to fully develop and apply embryonic stem cell research will vastly exceed the number of frozen embryos currently provided by fertility clinics. A further development is the prospect of therapeutic cloning in which embryos are cloned for the sole purpose of research. Farming human embryos sounds like something from a science fiction novel, yet such an idea has been considered increasingly possible with recent scientific advancements. Cloning for scientific purposes begs the question, at what point does life begin such that it becomes unethical to destroy it?
With continuing technological developments, the point at which a child is viable outside the mother’s womb becomes earlier and earlier. Therefore, the attempt to define a point at which life begins past the initial point of conception is futile. As more advanced technologies continue to be developed, society should not continue to define and re-define what constitutes a human life. Life begins at conception, for it is from this point that an embryo contains all genetic information necessary to develop into a human being. Dr. Eckman asserts, “Every human being has a right to be protected from discrimination – Human embryonic stem cell research discriminates against human embryos on the basis of developmental immaturity” (Eckman). As is suggested by Eckman, simply because an embryo at one week is not as physically mature as one at nine months, it is not any less human, and should therefore not be treated as such.
As society further progresses, advancements will continue in the field of science. Humans must be cautious of compromising the moral standards that define human civilization for the further acquisition of scientific knowledge. There comes a point at which manipulation of life’s natural processes crosses an ethical boundary. Although motivated by good intentions, such procedures often involve actions of a morally questionable nature. It is necessary that our practices remain ethical and that we uphold the value of a human life, as this is the cornerstone of human society. Embryonic stem cell research is one such operation that forces scientists, policy makers, and the larger society to define what constitutes a human life and to find an answer to the crucial question: Is it morally acceptable to violate the rights of a human life for the for the sake of medical progress?
Eckman, Dr. Jim. “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Issues in Perspective.
2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
“Fact Sheet on Presidential Executive Order.” The White House. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
Hubbard, James. “Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons.”
Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons. The Survival
Doctor. 2008. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
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Stem Cell Research
March 7, 2010
Stem cells can be obtained from three different sources. The first and most controversial source is an embryonic cell that comes from a three to five day old blastocyst. A blastocyst is a ball of undifferentiated cells that forms after an ovum is fertilized. These are often created by in vitro fertilization for implantation in infertile woman or gestational carriers in order for these women to become pregnant. Some of the “extra” unused blastocysts are frozen for possible future use. These blastocysts and aborted fetuses have been used to create embryonic stem cell lines. The second very rich source of stem cells is the umbilical cord. Blood cells from the cord blood of a newborn infant can be used immediately or frozen for later use by that infant, close relative, or unrelated recipient. The third and most recently discovered source is adult stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). Adult bone marrow or blood cells can be artificially induced back into unprogrammed cells and then can be used as stem cells to form other somatic cell lines, such as nerves and muscle cells.
The origin of the first argument is the source and process for producing some stem cells, specifically embryonic stem cells. Often, people jump to the conclusion that all stem cells are derived from embryos meaning that a human life must be sacrificed in order to create a stem cell line. Those people who feel that life begins at conception oppose the use of unused blastocysts and aborted fetuses in research, while pro-choice groups generally support embryonic cell studies advocating that new lives were not created just for the purpose of experimentation. In August 2001, President Bush compromised by approving federal funding for research that involved only the 15 already existing stem cell lines. Other cell lines could still be developed with state and private funding. According to various polls, the American public strongly supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research – over 60% of Democrats and independents and 40% of Republicans. In March 2009, President Obama used an executive order to lift the eight year ban on federal funding to develop new stem cell lines. Potentially, one life could save millions of people from horrendous, unnecessary, tragic illnesses and untimely deaths.
Another controversy around stem cell use is the movement to create siblings who can serve as identical-matched donors. Umbilical cord blood is the typical tissue used in these situations, but occasionally supplemental bone marrow must be used. The use of in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis has allowed parents to create compatible fetuses who do not have the sibling’s genetic disease. Some people have raised moral and religious objections to creating a horde of embryos that will just get discarded without a thought if they do not meet the right criteria to help the sick sibling. Should a family create a child just to help a sibling, or should they have a baby because the new child would also be special to them? The first reported identical-matched donor case was five year old Molly Nash with Fanconi’s anemia who received cord blood cells from her newborn brother, Adam. To date, 58 siblings have been created for this purpose. In February 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that outlined strict criteria for using children as blood stem cell donors. The use of umbilical blood cells was not discouraged as long as the newborn infant was not placed at physical risk during delivery. The policy also addressed the psychological threats to both the donor and recipient children. The ongoing controversy over discarding unmatched embryos may be resolved by using the newly discovered adult stem cells.
The discovery of adult stem cells, or iPS, has excited the scientific community, but these cells still have their problems. An already differentiated body cell must be genetically reprogrammed back into an unprogrammed pluripotent cell that looks like an early embryo. The advantage is that an embryo does not have to be created, but the disadvantage is that cancer-causing oncogenes and retroviruses must be used to “unprogram” the adult cells. This could lead to an increased risk of cancer in already compromised patients. These cells could be used to treat a host of horrible human conditions from birth defects to heart disease and degenerative neurologic conditions. Scientists working in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine hope to someday use the cells from the intended recipient to create a new custom designed cell type or even a perfectly matched organ to replace damaged tissue.
With new knowledge comes a new concern about the creative misuse of this information. There are growing fears that stems cells would be used not only to clone new organs but could be used to clone whole new preferred populations. Some are concerned about the unintended consequences of new cancers or illnesses from retroviruses. Others argue that we should not mess with human life, and we should not be trying to play God. Research and medical organizations could allay the fears of the public by issuing policy statements similar to the one published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and by closely regulating the use of stem cell lines.
The potential social and economic benefits of the many that could be saved far outweigh the detriments of loss of life or limited funding. Adult and umbilical cells are emerging as the more advantageous sources with the fewest ethical controversies. Umbilical cells would be even more acceptable if genetic matches could be determined before an ovum is fertilized and an embryo is formed. That way an innocent life would not need to be sacrificed. It is essential that scientists zealously pursue stem cell research while valuing all life.