Embryonic Stem Cell Research is Morally and Medically Ethical Essay
Embryonic Stem Cell Research is Morally and Medically Ethical
- Issue ( Background)
Science and technology have opened many doors of progress in all areas of business. On such area far exceeds mere business and industry and touches upon human life itself. The medical community has reached a point where it can quite possibly create new and healthy cells and organs to replace those that are damaged. This process is made possible through embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).
Embryonic stem cells, as suggested by the name are extracted from embryos that have been fertilized in a laboratory setting for use by sterile couples and then, for whatever reason, are donated for research. These cells are about five days old (Stem Cell Basics). The cells are then developed and grown in a culture medium and shipped to other laboratories for further research. These stem cells are special because they can be converted through genetic manipulation to be any type of cell desired.
“To generate cultures of specific types of differentiated cells—heart muscle cells, blood cells, or nerve cells, for example—scientists try to control the differentiation of embryonic stem cells. They change the chemical composition of the culture medium, alter the surface of the culture dish, or modify the cells by inserting specific genes” (Stem Cell Basics). The benefit of this process is that these new healthy cells can be used to replace defective or diseased cells in individuals, in effect curing them of certain ailments.
- Conflict, c. Stance and d. Enthymeme
The controversy with this particular procedure stems from the fact that extracting these cells effectively kills the developing embryo, called at this stage a zygote. Those who believe that these cells constitute a human being, liken the process of extracting stem cells to abortion and murder (Robinson). Those that do not believe this way see the major medical benefits as outweighing the death of an unwanted and unused zygote. Most of the arguments against ESCR are religious in nature while those that favor it are following pragmatic and realistic processes. In light of the medically invaluable information and hope it provides, embryonic stem cell research should legally continue with full funding from the federal government.
Even as focus has turned toward adult stem cell research, ESCR remains the most valuable and efficient way of utilizing stem cells for medical purposes. In 2005, the United Kingdom announced that it was considering opening a stem cell bank using embryonic stem cells. Its research team at the University of Cambridge found that only 150 human embryos would be needed to created genetic material for approximately two-thirds of the population. The bank hopes to use these cells to replace “diseased or damaged tissue in conditions such as diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders” (Lita).
Embryonic stem cells can help treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and endocrinal disorders such as diabetes. Embryonic stem cells can be transformed into dopamine-producing neurons because these stem cells can be transformed into virtually any body cell including nerve cells and pancreatic cells. These cells can then begin producing dopamine or insulin as the case may be. (Kennell).
Victims of spinal cord injuries may soon be able to regain motor control as the result of ESCR. Preliminary research shows that it is possible to train embryonic stem cells to retrace neuro-motor pathways. Douglas Kerr, M.D., Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins University notes that “This is proof of the principle that we can recapture what happens in early stages of motor neuron development and use that to repair damaged nervous systems” (Embryonic Stem Cells Repair Latent Motor Nerve).
Despite its proven medical capabilities and hope for many other medical uses, ESCR has found virulent opposition from conservatives and the religious community. Their arguments hinge on the use of a living human being as fodder for medical experimentation. These arguments are suspect, even flawed, for several reasons, both philosophical and biological. Generally speaking, the more practical and pragmatic medical argument must be valued over the religious beliefs of some.
First, many will argue for the analogy between ESCR and murder. Many differences exist. As stated earlier, the zygote in question is only five days old. In no way could this particular cluster of cells contain life at this point – only the potential for life, which is basically the case whenever a woman and a man have intercourse. Lawyers from the National Institute of Health agree, noting that “stem cells are incapable of growing into a complete person. They may be coaxed to develop into nerve cells or heart cells. But, at most, they can become an organ, not a complete living person.
They cannot be considered a form of human life, even within the definition of pro-life supporters” (Robinson). Doctors even give biological explanations for this conclusion: “Human embryos are defined as human organisms derived by fertilization from one or more gametes or diploid cells. Pluripotent stem cells are specialized subpopulation of cells capable of developing into most (ectoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm), but not all, human tissue and may be derived from human embryos” (Chesney). Medically, even the cells are not the same.
However, the zygotes are being stored indefinitely at in-vitro fertilization clinics. For example, in the United States are over 350 fertility clinics that offer the in-vitro fertilization process. When a women submits herself to the procedure, about 25 ova are removed from her body and fertilized with her husband’s (or other donor’s) sperm. Only 2-4 of the embryos are used in the fertilization procedure and the rest are frozen in liquid nitrogen to save for later use. Generally, these remaining 20 or so embryos stay in the clinic indefinitely. Few couples use them all, and even fewer agree to donate them to other infertile couples.
Many embryos die due to changes in temperature or movement, and some clinics even throw the excess embryos away or use them in training staff (Robinson). The birth control pill blocks a fertilized ovum from implanting as does an intrauterine device (IUD). These two devices, along with discarding the embryos or using them for training, also affect the potential for life but are not so reviled. Moreover, the embryos’ ‘owners’ must always give consent to use these embryos for research; nobody is tricked during this process (Robinson). Basically, if these cells are not used for ESCR, they will ultimately be used for nothing.
Second, many opponents argue that adult stem cell research (ASCR) could replace ESCR and save the embryos. This is not yet the case, if it ever will be. First of all, the nature of the stem cells are different in adults and in embryos. Embryonic stem cells are more flexible and can become virtually any cell of any organ or tissue in the body. Adult stem cells are much more limited and cannot even be found in many organs or tissues in the body.
Moreover, adult stems cells are limited in number, even considered ‘minute’ in quantity and are very hard to identify. Embryonic stem cells are easy to identify and exist in large, usable numbers. Most importantly, embryonic stem cells are virtually blank, making them easy to manipulate into other tissues. Adult stem cells can contain genetic defects or “DNA errors caused by replication or exposure to toxins” (Cohen).
ESCR has been the focus of scientist for nearly two decades while ASCR has just begun to get some notice. Because of the emergence of ASCR, the opponents want to completely ban ESCR, not understanding that it is the reason that ASCR is even possible. However, because of the religious issues, ASCR is being forced into the limelight while ESCR has lost funding.
As a result, Dr. Helen Blau, ironically an adult stem cell researcher at the Stanford University, argues that she feels “strongly we need embryonic stem cells. The answers are not just going to come from the adult stem cells and it would be extremely short-sighted to shift completely to just adult stem cells” (Cohen). While adult stem cells may provide promise in the future, their use in the present is simply not as lucrative or promising as those of embryonic stem cells at this point in time.
- Backing and V. Conditions of rebuttal
Most arguments in opposition to ESCR originate in the religious realm. Dr. Dr. David Prentice, professor of life sciences at Indiana State University and founder of Do No Harm, The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics notes precisely this when he asserts, “The root of the debate really comes down to the ethical question of what’s the moral status of a human embryo. Is it a person or is it a piece of property? And obviously we have no consensus on that in this country and I think that means we should not use taxpayer funds to fund this type of research” (Cohen).
Yet, historically, this religious realm, when mixed with federal forces, has been squelched in other instances. For example, removing the ten commandments from federal buildings, denying prayer in school, and eliminate swearing under God to affirming under oath in courtroom proceedings are just a few of the ways that the government has attempted to separate the church and the state. Why is the religious conservative view allowed to proliferate here when it is not allowed to do so in other instances?
Similarly, the force of this religious surge against ESCR is the loss of life. While the beginning moment of human life is hugely debatable, does ESCR not also promote life? Lawyers and medical ethicists in favor of ESCR note that “Stem cells have an enormous promise to benefit mankind — to save lives and cure or treat diseases. This generates a very strong moral imperative to explore their potential” (Robinson).
Similarly, the conservative and religious opposition seems to even contradict their own opinion by not voicing concern about in-vitro fertilization clinics in general. As noted above, clinics routinely destroy abandoned embryos by flushing them down drains, incinerating them, or exposing them to room temperature” (Hall). Basically, unused, destroyed embryos number in the hundreds of thousands in fertility clinics across the country, but these clinics are not subjected to the political manipulation that ESCR is, which only uses a dozen or two embryos in the clinical setting.
Furthermore, the “parents” of these embryos are never challenged. The donors get to decide the fate of their unused embryos. The choices are to leave them to the use of the clinic, to donate them or to destroy them. Dr. Carl Herbert, president of the San Francisco Fertility Centers, notes that while this loss may seem harsh, it simply mimics the natural reproductive cycle.
He points out that Out of all the embryos created by sexual intercourse, roughly 3 out of 4 do not last long enough to produce a baby. About half of the fertilized eggs are lost even before the woman misses her first period following conception” (Hall). Dr. Marcelle Cedars, a fertility specialist at the University of California at San Francisco’s IVF clinic agrees. He argues that it is “unrealistic to expect technology to do much better at preserving the lives of early-stage embryos. Human reproduction is a very inefficient process and it is difficult to afford a higher status to embryos than nature does” (Hall).
Of course nobody wants to believe that a promising medical science field could be corrupt or greedy. Even ESCR should operate under certain moral guidelines. In no way should an embryo ever be used in any way except by that to which its donor consents. In addition, donors should not create embryos for the sheer purpose to sell them to clinics, as the process should result as a by-product of extra embryos create for potential implantation and not create any additional embryos not for that purpose. Finally, tricking or deceiving individuals into donating embryos or withholding information about their use would also be morally wrong.
ESCR is not the enemy of the moral fiber of the United States. It is a medically promising procedure that does not violate any right to life laws. Religious opposition to certain issues will always exist, but in recent history, it has not been allowed in interfere with federal political, social or educational decision-making. Clearly other possibilities and alternatives to ESCR may arise, but until these options are as viable as ESCR, they should not be allowed to interfere with the medical promise of this type of research.
Chesney, Russell et al. American Academy of Pediatrics, Human Embryo Research Committee on Pediatric Research and Committee on Bioethics. Pediatrics 108 (3), 3 Sept. 2001: 813-816. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/
Cohen, Elizabeth. Adult stem cells or embryonic? Scientists differ. CNN.com/Health. 10 August 2001. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from http://archives.cnn.com/2001/HEALTH/
Embryonic Stem Cells Repair Latent Motor Nerve. Science Daily. 28 June 2006. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from http://stemcell.taragana.net/archive/embryonic-stem-cells-repair-latent- motor-nerve/
Hall, Carl T. “The forgotten embryo: Fertility clinics must store or destroy the surplus that is part of the process.” SF Gate News. 20 Aug. 2001. at: http://www.sfgate.com/
Kennell, David. The promise of stem cell research. People’s Weekly World Newspapers. 29 July 2006. Retrieved 1 April 2006 from http://www.pww.org/article/articleview/9582/1/332
Lita, Ana. Embryonic Stem Cell Research: New Developments and Controversies. MedBioWorld. 10 October 2006. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from http://www.medbioworld.com/
Robinson, B.A. Human Stem Cells – Ethical Concerns. Religious Tolerance. 17 Oct. 2002. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/res_stem2.htm
“Stem Cell Basics.” The National Institutes of Health. 20 Feb. 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2008 from http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/basics3.asp