Bio-medical breakthroughs in the fields of genetic and tissue engineering hold great promise. However, as modern medicine advances, it often poses major ethical issues on which people are seriously divided. The argument in favor of proceeding with research at unrestrained pace is mainly advocated by scientists and medical experts who would like to see some fantastic therapeutic benefits that science promises in the form of stem cell technologies. Scientists are absolutely thrilled by the possibilities looming on the horizon (Thompson, Harrub 2001c).
On the other side of the debate are people, sometimes led by religious groups, who are concerned we may going too far too fast, using unacceptable means and in unknown directions. Stem cell research has the greatest potential for saving lives, but is controversial for its research based on embryos and fetuses (Rickard 2002). Stem cells are immature and unspecialized cells that that possess both the capacity to renew themselves indefinitely as well as the capability to differentiate themselves into specialized and mature cells.
Mature cells, such as the heart’s myocytes or the liver’s hepatocytes, stop dividing after several dozen divisions, while stem cells can keep on dividing indefinitely, either renewing themselves or bringing out specialized cells. There are four types of stem cells in the human body 1) adult stem cells, 2) fetal stem cells 3) embryonic stem cells, and 4) nuclear transplant stem cells. For the first three months of pregnancy, a fertilized cell, or zygote, divides and grows in the mother’s womb and is referred to as an embryo.
The embryo’s stem cells are the precursors of the development of a complete human baby. They produce all of the body’s various 100 trillion cells. It should become possible to use embryonic stem cells to regenerate any type of cell that the body needs. When the embryo assumes an apparent human body form, it becomes a fetus. Because the fetus is growing rapidly, all tissues and organs, including the brain, contain stem cells. It is for this reason that stem cell researchers are interested in studying fetal tissues.
Studies suggest that human embryonic stem cells have immense potential in terms of developing into multiple tissue types and long-term self-renewal. Therefore, stem cell research entails the intentional creation of human embryos in the highly artificial context of an IVF clinic, using cloning techniques, and discarding them after their use for research is exhausted (Thompson, Harrub 2001a). The question to be resolved is whether research on embryonic stem cells constitutes a violation of fundamental human rights, in particular the principle of respect for human dignity and the right of life.
However, many believe that conception/fertilization is not a moment but a process, and the early development does not indicate true individuality in any sense of the word, and therefore there is violation of human rights. The promise of embryo research, liberal-minded people tend to think, is too real to ignore any longer by sticking to conservative attitudes that stand in the face of pragmatism. And yet, even they would flinch at the possibilities of reproductive cloning.
The difference between therapeutic cloning using embryonic stem cells (stem cell research) and reproductive cloning is the distinction between creating cloned body tissue or organs for therapeutic purposes and creating cloned human beings. Reproductive cloning is generally viewed as morally abhorrent because it is seen as unnatural and a “commodification” of human life, and it captures public fears about the power of science to pursue a eugenic agenda.
When governmental organizations of today debate ban on human cloning, the main issue in such debates would be whether to ban outright all forms of embryo cloning, which a number of countries seem to support, or to permit the cloning of embryos for research purposes (therapeutic cloning/ stem cell research) while outlawing human reproductive cloning. Besides reproductive cloning, there is another untoward ramification to therapeutic cloning, which is cloning for enhancement.
The issue of using advances in stem cell research for the purposes of enhancement, as against solely therapeutic purposes, opens up a Pandora’s box of all kinds of complications, ethical, social, psychological, philosophical and practical. For instance, stem cell approaches might help to cure Parkinson’s patients, but, in the not too distant future, they could also be used to improve brain functions. Rich people would be able to afford this therapy and poor people would not. This could create a most undesirable stratification of the society.
But where does therapeutic cloning end, and enhancement cloning begin — even if cloning was advanced for purely therapeutic purposes, it would soon spread into the domain of enhancement. This is the argument of “slippery slope” commonly advanced against all biomedical research involving genetic and cellular manipulation. Last but not least, thanks to the promise that genetic engineering and human cloning research hold, the prospects of achieving capabilities for indefinite life extension even within the next twenty to thirty years are very high (Thompson, Harrub 2001b).
The consequences of physical immortality for whole populations are simply inconceivable. But today, the possibility of human race becoming permanently deathless looms uncomfortably close to us. Therefore it becomes imperative that something be done to stem the advances of genetic and cloning research before the situation goes out of hand. A number of states have already enacted specific cloning-ban legislation, either banning the cloning of humans or imposing a moratorium on cloning within the state. Other states have taken action at least to consider formally similar legislation.
At federal level, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003, which bans the process of human cloning for any purpose and the importation of any product derived from an embryo created via cloning, was passed by the U. S. House of Representatives on 27 February 2003. It was not ratified by the senate though. The Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2005 bans only reproductive cloning while allowing therapeutic cloning. To date, federal regulations only prohibit federal funding for research into human cloning (Cash 2005).
Though the science of bio-medical engineering is making rapid strides, and offers the promise of unveiling radical new therapies, simply the fact that a technology exists does not imply that anyone who can pay for it can be automatically allowed to use it. This is because the emerging genetic and cellular techniques and technologies raise all kinds of issues, ethical, philosophical, social, psychological and so on. They carry with them implications very difficult even to comprehend.