Social, Political, and Ethical Implications of Stem Cell Research
Embryonic stem cell research is no longer simply a scientific term. Many people recognize the term, and even know a little bit about the process.
This can be attributed to the fact that stem cell research has been covered in the news; scientists are not the only people discussing it. Our top political leaders have participated in an ongoing debate on stem cell research and whether it should be federally funded. They have debated stem cell research’s ethical and moral implications. Stem cell research has the potential to cure diseases, and yet people are still opposed to it. The following discussion will analyze what stem cell research is, what the moral and ethical implications are, and the political debate that surrounds stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells in the body; this means that they have the potential of becoming any type of cell in the body except for cells such as placenta cells. Embryonic stem cells are those that are found in an embryo that have been fertilized by in vitro fertilization, and that are then donated for research purposes. Stem cells are extracted from the blastocyst, the cell that becomes the placenta and embryo. Stem cells are taken from the inner cell mass (University of Kansas Medical Center). Stem cells can theoretically divide without limitation to replenish other cells. The cells, after division, can either stay stem cells or become more specialized cells (National Institute of Health). This special property of stem cells makes them potentially very useful to scientists. Scientists can use embryonic stem cells to make stem cell “lines” which are cell cultures that can be grown forever in a laboratory. With these lines a scientist has the potential to make any type of tissue, organ, or cell for a transplant (National Institute of Health). Since many people are on lists for transplants, this can solve the shortage of organs problem.
Adult stem cells, also known as somatic cells, are another type of stem cell. Adult stem cells are responsible for replacing old cells in the body. Stem cells have the ability to become many different types of cells in the body, but not all. Therefore they are called multipotent cells. Adult stem cells can come from adults, children, or umbilical cords. Recent studies have shown that some adult stem cells, such as bone marrow stem cells, can become liver, nerve, muscle, hair follicle, and kidney cells (Wikipedia). Adult sperm cells have also been researched, and they can become similar to embryonic stem cells under the right conditions. Adult stem cells are more difficult to use in research and for curing diseases. This is for multiple reasons. First, adult stem cells are rare, difficult to isolate, and difficult to identify. Second, adult stem cells are only multipotent, not pluripotent like embryonic stem cells Also, adult stem cells have a greater chance of containing an abnormality in the DNA. This could be caused by toxins, sunlight, and error in the making of the DNA (Wikipedia). For these reasons, scientists prefer to use embryonic stem cells for research.
The debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research arises from how embryonic stem cells are collected. These cells are collected from donated embryos, which are never grown in a womb. The scientists view is that embryonic stem cells can aid in curing some diseases and thus, ending some human suffering. Those opposing this view believe that the embryo is a human and it is wrong to harm a human, which is what they consider embryonic stem cell researchers to be doing. Many arguments against stem cell research revolve around religious beliefs (International Society for Stem Cell Research).
Those opposing stem cell research do not believe that it is right to federally fund it. This argument has two main points. First, that even though stem cell research may have a worthy end, it is still wrong because stem cell research involves destroying human embryonic cells. The second point is some people worry about a slippery slope that involves dehumanizing practices (New England Journal of Medicine). Some of these concerns include ethical and moral implications such as whether it is ethical to destroy a potential for life, the embryo, to save the life of someone else. People against embryonic stem cell research think that human life begins at conception. Therefore, using the embryo would be killing a human life. They also argue that the possibilities of adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood have not been explored far enough and that they could be used with the same ease as embryonic stem cells. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research also point out the fact that the research has not produced any cures for disease yet.
The main debate orbits around whether or not an embryo is a human. This debate has been going on for a long time and is mirrored in the abortion debate. Scientists do not believe that human embryo’s are human beings. One argument that supporters of stem cell research use is that when the extra embryo’s that occur from in vitro fertilization are discarded it is not considered murder. But by the definition of those opposing research this should be considered murder. In response to the slippery slope, restricting stem cell research is not the correct way to address this problem. When and if it came to that, Congress could enact legislation (New England Journal of Medicine).
Scientists recognize the infinite possibilities embryonic stem cell research can possibly provide. When they look at stem cell research, they see cures for many diseases that they have had little luck in curing before. They see the millions of lives they can make better. As for now, cures for disease are many years off, but federal funds for embryonic stem cell research would be a huge step in that direction (White).
Embryonic stem cell research has become a political debate. It is argued whether or not this research should receive federal funding. On August 9th, 2001, President Bush announced that federal funds may be used for stem cell research that meets certain qualifications. These qualifications state that the stem cell line must have been initiated before August 9th, 2001. Also, the embryo use must have been derived for reproduced purposes and no longer need. Lastly, informed consent must have been obtained for the donation (National Institute of Health).
Many members of Congress are unhappy with Bush’s stem cell policy. Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid stated, “We should embrace this research opportunity and not allow radical ideology to stand in the way. President Bush has made the wrong choice, putting politics ahead of safe, responsible science” (White). In 2005, a bill concerning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was passed in the House of Representatives and the measure was introduces in the Senate. The legislation allows for 400,000 that would otherwise be discarded be used. Members of the President’s own party voted in favor of the bill: 50 Republicans in the House voted for the bill (Cnn.com). Arlen Specter, a Republican Senator, has rallied for the bill in the Senate. The legislation in the Senate was delayed and will be voted on sometime this year (B P News).
Members of the President’s own political party do not support him or his ideological views. They realize that his personal opinions should not effect how he acts as the leader of this country. Also, the congressional Republican’s dissent from the President’s view shows that the constituents of those members support federally funded stem cell research. If they did not support it, the members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, would not support the bill. A congressman’s job is to represent their constituents’ views and opinions. This shows that a majority of the American public supports stem cell research. President Bush needs to realize this and take into account the wishes of the American people when ruling the country.
I believe stem cell research can prove to be very useful in many fields of study. It not only can make transplants readily available, scientists can begin to understand how all of our cells are made by observing stem cells that grow into a variety of more complicated cells. It was easy for me to pick a side in this debate because I have already decided that I do not believe embryos are human beings. I had to make this decision when I was considering whether I believed abortion was right or wrong. I do not have a heavy religious background, so I do not believe that human life begins at conception. I think that accidents do occur, and that some people’s beliefs should not dictate a woman’s choice about her own body. I believe a fetus is considered a human being when it can live outside of the womb with minimal medical assistance.
I think this relates to embryonic stem cell research because I do not think that a few people’s opinions should dictate scientific research. President Bush said, “I am a strong supporter of stem cell research, but I’ve made it very clear to Congress that the use of federal taxpayer money to promote science that destroys life in order to save life, I am against this”(White). It is his opinion that embryonic stem cell research destroys life, and if Congress passed a bill the allows federally funded stem cell research, than the president, who is a single person, should not veto the carbolated efforts of 535 representatives of the American public. If federal funding for stem cell research was opposed by a majority of American citizens, their representatives would never have been able to pass the legislation through Congress.
While the slippery slope argument is scary to think about, we cannot invest that much in thinking about what could happen in the future. We need to decide these types of situations with the present in mind. Right now, embryonic stem cell research has the potential to help many people, and I think it is a waste if we do not explore these possibilities.