Ethics of Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are probably the most important area of medical research since the discovery of antibiotics in the middle of the 20th century. They will likely produce cures for a wide range of human diseases and other afflictions including traumatic paralysis from injury. Yet, their use provokes intense ethical controversy, mainly from the Religious Right because of their belief that human life begins at conception.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells with the potential to develop into virtually every type of human tissue under the right conditions (Levine, 2008; Sagan, 1997). They
are capable of being extracted from various different sources but with different potential usefulness depending on their source (Levine, 2008; Pollack, 2007). Generally, stem cells extracted from fetal tissue and umbilical cord blood are hold the greatest potential for medical use because they are the most flexible in terms of their ability to develop into specific tissues. While stem cells can also be extracted from the bone marrow of adult human beings, the process is complicated, expensive, and painful, and those cells are considerably less flexible in their capacity for development into different types of tissues
Beneficial Uses of Stem Cells:
The benefits of stem cells are tremendous: so far, considerable research has demonstrated that continued development of stem cell science will eventually enable physicians to treat, cure, and prevent Alzheimer’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Cancer, Diabetes,
Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sickle Cell, and Tay-Sachs Disease. Furthermore,
because stem cells can be stimulated to develop into complete functioning biological organs such as kidneys, livers, hearts, and lungs, they could very well entirely eliminate the need for donor organs (Sagan, 1997).
Currently, thousands of patients die every year in the United States alone, simply because too few donor organs become available in time to save them (Kinsley, 2007;
Pollack, 2007). Likewise, even the lucky recipients of donor organs must take powerful anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection of the transplanted organs. Those drugs have numerous serious side effects such as the suppression of the entire immune system which causes numerous other medical problems and shortens the lives of organ donors considerably (Levine, 2008).
By generating organs from the combination of the patient’s own tissue with fetal stem cells, it will be possible to eliminate this problem in addition to ensuring the survival of the majority of patients on organ recipient lists who do not survive long enough for a transplant organ to be found for them (Kinsley, 2007). Even paralysis such as from diving and motor vehicle accidents will probably be able to be cured by stem cell applications (Sagan, 1997).
Legal and Ethical Issues:
Despite their tremendous potential for benefiting human health and welfare, many oppose the use of fetal stem cells because of their religious beliefs. According to many
Christians in particular, both abortion and the use of any fetal tissue for medical purposes is immoral because human life begins at conception (Dershowitz, 2002; Levine, 2007).
According to this view, even the embryos produced in-vitro fertilization clinics must not be used for research purposes, even with the consent of the patients who donated the sperm and egg.
The previous presidential administration of George Bush outlawed the federal funding of any stem cell research of this (most valuable) type in 2001 and, as a result, the United States has lost years of tremendously important research in that area (Kinsley,
2007; Pollack, 2007). In the U.S., virtually all major medical research is conducted with federal funding because its cost is far too great for private enterprises (Levine, 2008).
Meanwhile, millions of unused embryos created in-vitro fertilization clinics must be frozen indefinitely or discarded as “medical waste” instead of being donated for valuable medical research with the potential to increase human health profoundly.
Legal scholars (Dershowitz, 2002) have argued that the federal ban on stem cell research is unconstitutional because it was motivated strictly by religious beliefs, and therefore violates the fundamental concept of separation of church and state. Certainly,
those with religious beliefs that prohibit abortion or stem cell research must always have the freedom to make choices consistent with those beliefs; on the other hand, those who do not share such beliefs should never have their options limited by the religious beliefs of others (Dershowitz, 2002).
Stem cells represent tremendous potential for benefiting the human community through the eradication of disease and the improved treatment of various other medical conditions. Their appropriate use violates none of the established principles of medical ethics (Levine, 2008), yet political opposition has stalled the evolution of stem cell science since 2001. Hopefully, the reversal of that position by President Barack Obama will enable scientists to finally develop the many beneficial applications without further delay.
Dershowitz, A.M. (2002). Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age. New
York: Little Brown & Co.
Kinsley, M. (2007). “Commentary: Why Science Can’t Save the GOP” Time (Dec.
Levine, C. (2008). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Bioethical Issues. 12th Ed. Dubuque
Iowa: McGraw Hill.
Pollack, A. (2007). “After Stem-Cell Breakthrough the Real Work Begins” The New
York Times (Nov. 27/07: F1).
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