In any given society, new technologies create a lacuna in socio-ethical thought. Will a given technology improve or destroy peoples’ lives? In what ways will the new technology change peoples’ lives? Which aspects of technology ought to be accepted, rejected or controlled to ensure that it is for a common good and not for ill? Will our autonomy be eroded or enhanced? These are some of questions frequently asked in stem cell research. As a result, these essay paper tries to argue on whether stem cell research permission is possible. The literature reviewed indicated that stem cell research has the potential of curing some of incurable diseases in the future. Although some people believe that stem cell research is unethical, morally wrong and unacceptable, because of its many benefits, this essay paper argues for the permission of stem cell research.
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Controversies behind stem cell research emanate from issues to do with the source, number, appropriate stage, purity and the criteria for harvesting the stem cells (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). When harvesting the stem cells for instance, the procedure destroys the human embryo. As a result, it is questionable on whether it is morally right to destroy one life to protect another life.
Generally, stem cells constitutes the cells that are capable of splitting themselves an indefinite period of time (developmental plasticity) giving rise to a number of specialized cell types (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). The developmental plasticity is largely common in early embryonic cells and fertilized eggs. Medically, stem cells can be separated from umbilical cords, embryos and other adult tissues. Compared to stem cells derived from umbilical cords and embryos, stem cells isolated from adult tissues have a higher plasticity. Embryonic stem cells are also capable of growing indefinitely when placed in a culture and scientists today have learnt on how to coax them to produce curing cell types. The stem cell therapies in this case are useful in treating the spinal cord disorders, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and some cancers (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Scientists also believe that stem cells can replace worn-out red blood cells.
In spite that, stem cells are beneficial, the ethical questions arise from the harvesting of the cells for medical research and their function. Therefore, should we permit stem cell research? Then, if we permit, will we extract them from discarded fetuses or destroy a growing embryo to obtain stem cells?
Basing their arguments on the way stem cells are harvested – through destruction of human embryos –, some medical professionals argue against the permission stem cells research. Another group argues for stem cells research permission as a way of giving the field of medicine a chance to deal with some challenging problems that are likely to be handled using stem cells in the future. Therefore, this discussion therefore hopes to find out if stem cell research should be permitted. If yes, on what ground? The discussion will argue around moral, ethical, medical and existing policies regarding stem cell research. Finally, the conclusion will depend on presented evidence.
New technologies including cloning, genetically modified food, genetic engineering and stem cell research have often raised ethical issues while leaving a vacuum in the social thought. In stem cell research, human stem cells are often harvested from embryo tissues after elective abortion, human embryos generated through in vitro fertilization for research purpose or for couples undergoing infertility treatment or human embryos developed by somatic cell nuclear transfer (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). A number of ethical issues often arise regarding stem cell research especially on the issues to do with the moral status of the embryo. The society in this case perceives the embryo in three different ways; the embryo possesses no inherent worth; embryos as having some pre-personal status but not worth of a person; and the embryo as a person. Depending on different societies and culture, policy makers and researchers view the destruction of embryos through stem cell research from different perspectives.
The major source of the controversies around embryonic stem cell research is the recurring questions on the moral status that should be given to the embryonic stem cells and the embryos themselves (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Usually, the most confounding problem on this issue occurs when people fail to agree on when the life of a human being begins. The beliefs on when life begins are under the influence of influence by religion, culture and the principles held by a particular society.
While some cultures and religions believe that human embryos should be protected the same way other human beings are protected, others maintain that an embryo does not have the potential of becoming a human being at its earliest stage of development and does not therefore require much protection. Yet others feel that embryos should not be accorded the moral status of a human being before they are a number of days old after the implantation in the uterus (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Some believers like Muslims on the other hand do not confer the moral or legal status of a human being on a fetus until the end of the fourth pregnancy.
The debate on embryonic stem research also focuses on the natural potential for life instead of the point at which life starts. Generally, after being derived from an embryo, embryonic stem cells no longer have a natural possibility of forming to a human being. Considering that the stem cells lack the outer layers of an embryo, they lose the capacity of creating some structures required for continued development (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Some people in this case maintain that stem cells should be treated like any human tissue since they have the same moral status although not like that of a completely formed person.
The potential of embryos becoming human beings is another point of controversies regarding the stem cell research (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). While some people focus on the potential of the embryo to become a whole human being, others strongly contend that although an embryo has the potential of becoming a whole human being, that state has not yet been achieved. They however maintain that whereas embryos are not fully formed human beings, they have the same rights and same ethical obligations like those of completely formed human beings.
Another point of contention is based on the nature of the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). When trying to achieve a single pregnancy, the IVF process produces a large number of embryos. This does not rule out the fact that all the embryos created to help the couples conceive have the potential of becoming human beings. On the other hand, if the embryo is not implanted in a woman’s uterus and allowed to develop, an embryo cannot become a whole human being (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). On the other hand, this does not occur to the many embryos generated through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Usually, the process involves harvesting a number of eggs that are then fertilized to increase the chances of forming a viable embryo. The process in this case results to a surplus of embryos that can be frozen and used in future (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). In this case, one can keep embryos frozen for the couple’s future implantation, destroyed, and then donate them for research or given to other couples. Naturally, only embryos used on other fertile couples have the potential of resulting to a human being. However, the excess frozen embryos are usually destroyed.
Instead of choosing to destroy excess embryos, it is only fair and logical to use them for stem cell research and improve the lives of those suffering from the diseases that can be treated through stem cells. If embryos have to be destroyed, it should only be done through research. Besides, human beings only attain moral status when they form relationships and develop the consciousness, which embryos lack. Moreover, immediately after conception, embryos cannot be considered human beings since they still have the opportunity to differentiate (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). It would therefore be only fair to allow researchers to continue with stem cell research.
In America, the U.S. Congress has not yet regulated stem cell research by legislation. This has left many people free to impose their own principles and regulations on research. America in this case regulates embryonic stem cell research at the federal level through limiting federal funding for some type of stem cell research (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008).
Moral and Ethical Issues
In America, most people argue that the Federal government should not support or fund any research that is involved with in vitro fertilization (IVF) of embryos for research purposes. Although the embryos created for infertility treatment do not raise many ethical questions as does IVF embryos, the fact that the procedure destroys a growing life is still unacceptable (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Moreover, cloning should also be discouraged since the embryo created could end up being used for research. Even in a situation where embryos could be derived from animal parts, other issues would still arise on the nature of the embryo produced. It is therefore clear that each source of the stem cells has a potential of raising legal, scientific, ethical and medical questions.
Even at the conception stage, the embryonic stem cell research violates the moral principles of protecting human life (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). The use of embryonic stem cells should be considered unethical and should therefore not be allowed. Actually, it is only illogical for doctors to destroy a human life in order to save a life of another individual. The act in this case is discriminatory and invaluable.
Stem cell research also denies the developing human embryo the expected dignity and the rights to develop as expected. Here, one should consider an embryo as a distinct living being considering that life begins at conception (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). In this case, the human embryo commands respect like any other human being and given the same rights accorded to mature human beings. Instead of using as a means to an end, an embryo is entitled to life and therefore deserves respect in its treatment. Therefore, permitting stem cell research is against human life.
Moreover, whereas it is required of any researcher to obtain informed consent in any medical research, there is rare or absence of consultation from the donors of the specimens used in stem cell research. Although most countries including America have not set enough legal standards on how the consent in stem cell research can be obtained, existing rules should be maintained and respected. The rules should in this case include full information regarding the nature of the embryonic cell derivation, source of funding, specific research being carried out and the expected clinical application (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). A consent should also be obtained from the couple whose infertility needs are met to avoid the remaining embryos being used for unintended purposes.
In consideration of morality and ethics, embryos deserve respect. However, there is no clear direction on what kind of respect the embryo deserves. On the other hand, for the policy makers and scientists who maintain that the embryo has a moral status of a human being right from conception, any activity that intentionally destroys it is unethical, morally wrong and unacceptable. Therefore, no permission should be given for stem cell research.
On the other hand, those who do not value the life of a human embryo often face more challenges when devising policies that are ethically acceptable (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). While most issues are often contested on moral principles, an effective public policy can be used to solve the dilemma and the existing issues. Although some people maintain that stem cell research should not be allowed, there are still a number of good reasons as to why stem cell research should be permitted.
In this era, one should consider embryonic stem cell research as a revolution in medical research. Considering the many potential uses of embryonic stem cell research, medical professionals and other associated authorities should permit stem cell research. As Beauchamp & Walter (2008) observe, researchers can use embryonic stem cells and medical practitioners who wish to study how genetic material in a fertilized egg can be used to create a whole organism. The cells can also assist researchers in identifying drugs and substances in the environment that cause serious anomalies during pregnancy. Researchers and medical practitioners could also use tissues generated from embryonic stem cells to test drug toxicity (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). In this case, stem cell research is beneficial.
Stem cell research should also be permitted because of the potential use of embryonic stem cells when treating neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008), Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease which occurs when some types of nerve cells die. Embryonic stem cell research is useful in restoring the functions of the immune system, cure Type I diabetes while treating cancers and people with cartilage and bone diseases. While the embryonic stem cell research has the potential of creating new nerve tissues, a mature human body cannot replace damaged nerve cells. Due to these unimaginable possibilities, stem cell research get funding and support in order to maximize the medical opportunities the research is likely to bring. Therefore, stem cell research will save the lives of those people who would have otherwise been denied an opportunity to live without stem cell research.
If stem cell research is to be accepted, the source of the stem cells must be ethically and scientifically resolved. Deriving organs, cells and tissues from dead bodies may for instance be more acceptable since no life is lost through such research (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Provided the research follows the policies set for such scientific inquiry, stem cells research has no problem. For instance, we call for the use of dead cells instead of embryonic stem cells in stem cell research.
Opponents of stem cell research argue that stem cell research will encourage abortion in order to obtain the research material. On the other hand, with or without stem cell research, those individuals wishing to procure abortion will still do so. Actually, stem cell research can rarely encourage abortion. Therefore, on abortion grounds, one should not discourage stem cell research.
Moreover, not allowing stem cell research will deny needy patients (those who require organ replacements) an opportunity to improve their medical conditions. Those who favor stem cell research further argue that, considering that only a few stem cells are required for research and a large number of aborted fetuses already exist, stem cell research is not likely to encourage abortions. Moreover, no researcher has been recorded as having grown an actual human organ from a stem cell. In this case, the possibility of increased abortions is based on possibilities and not realities. Additionally, if stem cell technology advances far enough to grow organs in culture, the technology has the potential of enabling use of stem cells from the body of the patients and the embryonic tissues will no longer be required. Scientists further agree that the stem cell research is capable of developing new treatments for a number of serious and currently untreatable diseases.
In order to reach a satisfactory consensus regarding stem cell research, clinicians, scientists and patients involved in stem cell research should formulate their answers based on these questions; is it morally allowed to destroy a human embryo? Can the society benefit from others’ destruction of embryos? Should human embryonic stem cell research be postponed? Can we really create an embryo with a purpose of destroying it? Should human embryos be cloned?
In the advancement of the field of medicine, stem cell research is an important element. Based on the review put across, the essay argues for stem cell research permission. Nevertheless, the field has become of great concern considering that some researchers are out to make money and not to cure the possible diseases. In order to make sure that stem cell research achieves its objectives, the current ethical and moral controversies must be solved amicably. Whereas a consensus on the issue of when life begins, and whether embryonic stem cells should be used for research or destroyed may not reached any soon, the medicine field and researchers should be given a chance to develop research which is capable of treating challenging illnesses. Therefore, and in spite of some moral and ethical issues considered in it, we argue for permission of stem cell research.
Beauchamp, T. & Walters, L. (2008). Contemporary Issues in Bioethics, 7th edition,
Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth.