The destruction of human embryos is required for obtaining stem cells. Alleviating human suffering costs human life and this gives rise to the ethical issue of taking human life. Some people have opined that destroying human life is immoral and should not be pardoned. Nevertheless, the fact remains that embryonic stem cells provide advanced medical treatment for terminal diseases (Oz). The ethicists propose alternative options such as the use of adult stem cells instead of embryonic stem cells.
From this one can conclude that the major cause for debate on the issue of using stem cells derives from divergent opinions on the definition of life and not from a rejection of the principle which claims that the end does not justify the means or lack of faith in the latent possibilities of this technology (Oz). Scientists are trying to develop a system, wherein stem cells can be produced without destroying the embryo and which enables the embryo to develop normally. This method would provide an alternative to using human embryos for making stem cells.
However, research projects in this area have been kept in abeyance since August 2001, due to the lack of federal funding by the government of the US. Moreover, the White House has adopted the stance that it requires further information to support such research and President Bush stated that he was desirous of perusing some more reports about such research (Stem-cell “breakthrough”: much heat, little light). The Catholic Church was vehemently opposed to such research as it stated that none of the embryos used for such research had survived.
These church authorities made veiled hints that details about the nature of such research were not being fully divulged. The White House stated categorically that any use of human embryo for research purposes would be viewed seriously (Stem-cell “breakthrough”: much heat, little light). The most vehement critic of such research was Richard Doerflinger of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who accused the researchers in this field of committing acts of falsehood, because of the fact that none of the embryos used in the study had survived.
In this research a total of sixteen embryos had been used and all of them, without exception, had been destroyed during the course of these experiments. Moreover, he accused the researchers of having utilized a number of cells from each embryo instead of using just a couple of cells for that purpose, because while implanting embryos in genetic diagnosis, one or two stem cells are normally used (Stem-cell “breakthrough”: much heat, little light). In the United States there are nearly three hundred and sixty fertility clinics, which conduct in vitro fertilization procedures for infertile couples.
The clinics extract twenty four ova from each female client. Subsequently, these ova are fertilized with the sperm of male donors’, usually the husband. Afterwards, either two or four embryos, obtained by this fertilization process are selected and implanted in the womb of the female client, with the expectation that at least one of these will develop and survive a pregnancy to term. The remaining embryos are then discarded by some of the clinics.
However, some clinics use the excess embryos for imparting medical training. Most of these clinics deep freeze the excess embryos in liquid nitrogen and some clinics use the excess embryos as an alternative if no pregnancy is realized. Such clinics administer a repeated impregnation to woman clients, who failed to become pregnant by previous implantations of embryos. In addition, some couples donate their own embryos to other infertile couples; however, donating embryos is a rare event because clients generally do not prefer to see their child in some other family.
Eventually, most of the excess embryos remain as spare, frozen embryos, which are never used. President George W. Bush for the second time refused to accord his consent for a piece of legislation that would permit federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. The proposed legislation would have repealed the present restrictions on research in the field of embryonic stem cells. The advocates of such research made a number of concerted attempts to override the veto of the President but all their efforts were in vain.
They were unable to realize the two – thirds votes, which are essential for overriding the presidential veto (Minkel and Stein). The proposed legislation would have permitted research on cells extracted from excessive and unneeded embryos at fertility clinics. In a survey conducted by Science, it was revealed that more than sixty percent of patients who had excess embryos in the fertility clinics had come forward to donate their embryos for research on stem cells and only twenty percent of patients had stated that they would donate their excess embryos to other infertile couples (Minkel and Stein).
During the annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics, US researchers reported that stem cells taken from amniotic fluid had proved to be extremely effective in repairing defective tracheas of lamb fetuses. In that research study, scientists isolated mesenchymal stem cells in the samples of amniotic fluid taken from pregnant sheep. Subsequently, these cells were grown in a culture and afterwards they were transferred to biodegradable tubes in order to form cartilage.
After the transplantation of these tissues into the fetuses of sheep, it was found that the tissue had effectively mended defective tracheas in seven lamb fetuses. Moreover, the new born lambs did not display any respiratory problems (Stem success). Human embryonic stem cells act as master cells that develop any cell in the human body. The pace of the stem cell research was significantly accelerated in the year 1998. Researchers in the University of Wisconsin succeeded in isolating cells from the inner cell clusters of the early human embryo.
These early human embryos are termed as blastocysts. These scientists developed the first embryonic stem cell lines (Stalcup). Stem cells represent a major breakthrough in medical therapy because they can be used either in the treatment of terminal diseases or for the purpose of assuaging diseases. Stem cells generate replacement tissues for defective or non functioning cells or organs in the human body. Researchers are extremely sanguine in using this therapy in spinal cord injuries due to accidents, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes (Stalcup).
Scientists in this field of research hope to utilize specialized cells to replace defective cells in the brain, spinal cord, pancreas and other vital organs of the body. Stem cells exist in one week old embryos or blastocysts. They are created through the process of in – vitro fertilization or IVF and are present in five to nine week old embryos, embryos created through IVF for research purposes, embryos made through cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT, and the adult tissues available in umbilical cord blood and bone marrow (Stalcup).
Widespread criticism has been aimed at the making of stem cells from human embryos and fetuses. Extracting stem cells from the embryo invariably results in the destruction of the embryo. Embryonic stem cells in the earlier stage of development are called totipotent cells. Totipotent cells have the capability to develop into a complete organism and produce an embryo and tissues to support it in the uterus. Subsequently, these stem cells reach the development stage and at this stage they are called pluripotent embryonic stem cells (Stalcup). Pluripotent embryonic stem cells can exist and develop into any type of cell in the body.
However, unlike totipotent cells, pluripotent cells cannot produce supporting tissues. Thus the stem cells found in the early stage embryos potentially possess the ability to transform into any type of body cells, whereas adult stem cells do not have such capability (Stalcup). The extant thinking amongst the world wide scientific community is that human embryos are principally human beings. Such thinking has been engendered by the fact that human embryos are biologically human beings; moreover, life begins at fertilization and embryos grow and develop into complete human beings.
In the 1970s and 1980s, embryologists termed the human embryo in its first week as a pre embryo. They claimed that this pre embryo was not a human being. They also believed that due to development they gradually gained the status of human beings. However, the scientific community desisted from using the term pre embryo due to the fact that such a description was incorrect. Furthermore, the Human Embryo Research Panel and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission also rejected use of the term and declared that the human embryo from its very inception was a living organism and developing form of human life.
According to the 1995 Ramsey Colloquium statement, an embryo is a human being in its developmental stage and it cannot be referred to as any object or animal (Stalcup). The general consensus is that the forced sacrifice of some human beings for the benefit of other human beings is not correct from an ethical point of view. Hence research on human embryonic stem cells that are obtained by destroying human embryos is to be prohibited on grounds of general morality (Stalcup).