The Debate Concerning Stem Cell Research

The Debate Concerning Stem Cell Research

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"Stem cell research is the key to developing cures for degenerative conditions like Parkinson's and motor neuron disease from which I and many others suffer." -- Stephen Hawking

As college students, it is important that we know and care about the issue of stem cell research. Stem cell research is currently legal in most countries. The United States, normally a leader in new frontiers, is one of the last to explore this territory. As it is slowly being pushed forward, we are going to have to know about it. If it keeps progressing, we as citizens will have to vote on it. It affects most of our lives in a personal way. Most of you know at least one person with diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. Perhaps even you will face one of these illnesses at some point in your life. It is important to know about issues like stem cell research, which can help many people in our society.

Stem cell research is becoming an issue that is one of the most profound of our time. The issue of research involving stem cells derived from human embryos is increasingly the subject of dinner table discussions and a national debate. The issue is confronted every day in laboratories as scientists ponder the ethical consequences of their work. It is agonized over by parents and many couples as they try to have children, or save children already born. The issue is debated within the church, with people of different faiths, even many of the same faith coming to different conclusions. Many people are finding that the more they know about stem cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions.

What is stem cell research? It starts with an embryo. An embryo is created when a male sperm and a female egg are joined. A large number of embryos already exist outside the natural environment. They are the product of a process called in vitro fertilization, which helps many couples conceive children. When doctors match sperm and egg to create life outside the womb, they usually produce more embryos than are planted in the mother. Once a couple successfully has children, or if they are unsuccessful, the additional embryos remain frozen in laboratories. Some will not survive during long storage; others are destroyed. A number have been donated to science and used to create privately funded stem cell lines.

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A few have been implanted in an adoptive mother. They are eventually born, and today they are healthy children.

Based on preliminary work that has been privately funded, scientists believe further research using stem cells offers great promise that could help improve the lives of those who suffer from many terrible diseases -- from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer's, from Parkinson's to spinal cord injuries. While scientists admit they are not yet certain, they believe stem cells derived from embryos have unique potential. Stem cells can also be derived from sources other than embryos -- from adult cells, from umbilical cords that are discarded after babies are born, and from human placenta. Many scientists feel that research on these type of stem cells is also promising. Many patients suffering from a range of diseases are already being helped with treatments developed from adult stem cells. However, most scientists believe that research on embryonic stem cells offers the most promise because these cells have the potential to develop in all of the tissues in the body.

“Alright!” you say, “Let’s use these embryos to save some lives!” This may sound like a good idea, but research on embryonic stem cells raises profound ethical questions, because extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and by doing that, destroys its potential for life. Each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being. As former President George Bush put it,

The issue is centered around two fundamental questions: First, are these frozen embryos human life, and therefore, something precious to be protected? And second, if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives? (Bush)

Ask a handful of people these two questions and chances are you will get different answers from all of them. Is stem cell research ethical? To see what the true ethical issues are, you need to look at the approaches of these three groups: medical, social, and profit oriented.

When talking about stem cell research, the first group you will encounter is the medical group. The medical field right now is providing us with endless opportunities regarding improving health technology. With stem cell research providing a possible way for us to cure many life long or fatal illnesses, medical proponents argue that stem cell research creates a promising pathway for the future of world health. Stem cells have the ability to divide for an indefinite period in lab culture and can develop into most of the specialized cells and tissues of the body, such as muscle cells, nerve cells, liver cells, and blood cells. Stem cells stimulated to develop into specialized cells could be used to treat diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, stroke, burns, heart disease, and diabetes. Using stem cells could reduce the dependence on organ donation and transplantation.

Seeing such great benefits in stem cell research, people in the medical group argue that the research is necessary for the society’s general health benefit. Michael J. Fox best summarizes this approach by saying "stem cell research offers the chance of a medical miracle" (O’Connor). Stem cell research could not only helping people like Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve, but also people like the old man down the street with Parkinson’s, or the child with diabetes. There are three very passionate and well known people driving this side of the debate: Christopher Reeve, Mary Tyler Moore and Michael J. Fox who say stem cells could cure their diseases. Michael J. Fox has testified before Congress saying he believes this research could help cure a disease he has, Parkinson's. Mary Tyler Moore has gone before the Congress and said perhaps in stem-cell research, including embryonic stem cell-research, is the cure for diabetes. Christopher Reeve has been pushing for stem cell research in the media since day one.

One of the main arguments against stem cell research and the medical approach is the fact that it requires using human embryos. These embryos are stored in fertility clinics until used by surrogate mothers. In these fertility clinics, every day of the week, fertilized embryos that will not be implanted in the womb are headed for the garbage. People like Reeve would argue that if you believe that life begins the moment that an egg is fertilized, then it would seem that there would be an outrage that these unwanted fertilized embryos are being thrown away. As Christopher Reeve puts it, “All scientists want to do is rescue cells that are headed for the garbage and use them to treat 100 million Americans who are suffering right now” (King). These views of the medical group are just the beginning of the complexity surrounding stem cell research.

The social group is a complex one. It contains two opposing viewpoints. This is where people are torn between saving existing lives or lives that could be yet to come. This group relies on traditional values: the value of a human life. This brings up many questions like “When does life begin?” The first side of this group argues that life begins at the joining of a sperm and an egg. Embryonic stem cell research is a violation of human rights. In an official statement from the Pope, he explains that

if the United States Government were to place its stamp of approval on the destruction of living human embryos in order to obtain stem cells, it would be the first time that our government has declared that a non-consenting human being may be exploited and killed for experimental research purposes. The killing of human beings is never justified for research ends” (Craggs).

Focus on the Family is a group formed for the opposition of stem cell research. In order for scientists to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells, a living, human embryo must be killed. It is never morally or ethically justified to kill one human being in order to help benefit another. “By requiring the destruction of embryos, the tiniest human beings, embryonic stem cell research violates the medical ethic of ‘Do No Harm’” (Craggs).

Another way of obtaining stem cells is from aborted fetuses. Many people are concerned that if we legalize stem cell research, it will give more people a justifiable reason to have abortions. If a woman can have an abortion and the fetus can be used for stem cell research to save others lives, she feels justified in killing her baby. This demonstrates an “end justifies the means” philosophy.

Opponents of stem cell research argue that upon closer examination it becomes clear that destroying embryos is unnecessary because of the alternatives that have been found. The progress of tissue and organ development should not and need not be stopped, but the “morally unacceptable” practice of killing human embryos must end immediately. Appropriate research can yield cures for diseases and relief from suffering without compromising any moral standards.

Yet on the other side of the social approach, many people argue it should be ethical to allow the destruction of a few embryos in order to help the millions of people who suffer from diseases such as Parkinson’s and heart disease. In the Jewish religion, they state it is “Jewish requirements that we use our God-given knowledge to heal people, together with the concept of pikuach nefesh (the primary responsibility to save human life, which overrides almost all other laws) to justify a broad range of organ transplants and medical experimentation, such as stem cell research” (Craggs). The Religious Coalition of Choice believes in the morality of the use of tissue derived from fetuses when the procurement of that tissue is carefully regulated. They explain that “regulation of donations needs to assure that the decision to have an abortion is separated from the decision to donate fetal tissue” (Craggs). They also believe that fetal tissue donation is moral when the decision to use the tissue is made separately from the decision to abort. Women who have made informed decisions to donate fetal tissue for research deserve the respect and gratitude of society. (Craggs) People on this side believe that prohibition of researching stem cells from embryos would elevate the showing of respect to human embryos above that of helping persons whose pain and suffering might be alleviated. They believe that it is worth the sacrifice of unborn lives to save thousands currently living, who need treatment for their terminal illnesses.

The last group is the profit-oriented group. This group consists of the people interested in the profit from stem cell research. Stem cell research provides many financial opportunities. Although stem cell research is on the cutting edge of biological science today, it is still in its infancy, and an enormous amount of basic research remains to be done before it can result in medical treatments. Private, for-profit research typically translates the fruits of basic research into medical advances that are widely available to the public, but industry may be reluctant to invest in efforts that could take many years to yield commercial applications (Weiss). Large amounts of money are being paid to scientist and doctors who will research these lines of cells. Corporations like the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Geron Corporation support stem cell research because it gives them business. It opens up their doors and allows them to hire scientists, technicians, and supervisors. This creates a new industry in the United States, one from which many people could profit.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the United States has been experiencing a decline in our economy (Weiss). People in the profit-oriented group believe that if we did create this new industry, it would be very helpful in aiding the profit of the country. Stem cell research opens up new jobs, which then creates the possibility of an increase in our economy. Not only would stem cell research create opportunities for personal profit, it would create a great opportunity for our nation to profit.

Stem cell research is just in its first stages. The issue is so new and complicated, it is hard to take a stand on what you believe. But next time you watch Superman, think about Christopher Reeve. Because of stem cell research, it is possible that this handicapped superhero just may be able to save the world again. Not by leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but by exploring stem cell research and aiding scientist in fighting world disease. Are destroying embryos worth the saving of many lives? We are the future, and it is our opinions that count. What do you think?

Works Cited

Bush, George. “Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research” The Bush Ranch, Crawford, Texas. Posted: 8:01 PM October 16, 2002 >

O’Connor, Eileen. “Subcommittee hears testimony on stem cell research” September 14, 2000 Web posted at: 12:47 PM. October 25, 2002. >

King, John. “Christopher Reeve on politics and stem cell research” July 30, 2001 Posted: 10:47 AM October 27, 2002>

Craggs, Michael. “Stem cell research: Religious groups weigh in” October 27, 2002>

Weiss, Rick. “Stem Cell Transplant Works in Calif. Case. Parkinson's Traits Largely

Disappear” Tuesday, April 9, 2002; Page A08 Washington Post Online. October 16, 2002¬Found=true >
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