Going back further, the same religious principals also inspired opposition to organ transplants and blood transfusions; before that, the Catholic Church strictly forbade any forensic scientific research, necessitating the need to dissect cadavers for medical education entirely in secret (Levine, 2008).
Just as the news media are partially at fault today for their failure to distinguish legitimate concerns from ludicrous fears in connection with the ongoing political debate over American healthcare, they are equally responsible for allowing unfounded fears of "human cloning" in connection with the beneficial uses of stem cell science. Specifically, the main source of secular opposition to stem cell research is attributable to unnecessary fears of rampant misuse of human cloning technology to clone human beings. While human cloning is hypothetically possible, no responsible scientific researcher would ever misuse current biomedical technology in that fashion. The complexities of cloning entire organisms have been well documented in animal experiments and substantial technical obstacles remain before anybody reputable would consider human experimentation of this nature for that reason alone (Levine, 2008; Tong, 2007).
Objective Ethical Analysis:
The principle reasons that doctrinal objection to stem cell research is inappropriate are (1) it is logically flawed and (2) it contradicts the fundamental concept of separation of church and state embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution (Dershowitz, 2002). First, the religious-based belief that human life begins at conception is entirely subjective and incapable of being articulated (much less proven) in objective logical concepts and definitions. Second, while the U.S. Constitution specifically guarantees the right to maintain any religious beliefs without apology or justification, the same concept and constitutional provision also precludes religious beliefs from influencing public policy or secular law (Dershowitz, 2002).
Secular scientists do not claim to know precisely when a viable human embryo first becomes a person, partly because it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when specific human characteristics emerge and partly because embryonic and fetal development occurs in gradual stages rather than in sudden transformations. On the other hand, there is absolutely no logical justification for treating an embryo as a human being entitled to human rights at specific stages of development where any semblance of personhood can be definitively ruled out.
The fundamental argument predicated on the personhood of the embryo completely ignores the realities at the stages of development where the question is most easily answered. For example, in the earliest phase of human gestation, the fertilized ovum undergoes mitosis and splits into two cells, then four, eight, and so on. The religious doctrine that is responsible for the supposed "moral" objection to embryonic stem cell research maintains that any clump of four or eight undifferentiated individual human cells is already a person. That is strictly a religious position rather than a logical position; in fact, it would be impossible even for those adamantly holding that view to identify any small clump of fertilized cells in a Petri dish as human or nonhuman.
Moreover, no such protection applies to the thousands of IVF embryos created and then either frozen or destroyed as medical waste. In that regard, it seems logically and ethically incongruous that it be permissible to create excess human embryos in the IVF process only to discard or freeze them while it is impermissible to make beneficial use out those same embryos. In fact, the main controversy over stem cell research is precisely that it does not involve "cloning" human beings or even creating human tissue any further along than is already permitted in connection with other routine medical procedures.
The ideal source of embryonic stem cells are the embryos already in existence by the thousands in IVF clinics. Regardless of whether they are discarded as medical waste or authorized by the donors for use as a source of embryonic stem cells, neither results in the continued development of that tissue into the fetal stages of development. Certainly, by specific stages of fetal gestation, the issue of personhood does begin to arise legitimately. By "legitimate" one means simply that it is possible to articulate an objective basis for recognizing personhood: examples of logically objective bases for recognizing personhood would include sentience as well as brain waves. Regardless of the specific criteria, to qualify as legitimate they must be capable of objective description and cannot rely on any a priori religious beliefs defining human life or its supposed value in the embryonic stage. The U.S. Constitution provides both the right to maintain religious beliefs as well as the same right to live free from interference from the religious beliefs of others. Acquiescence on the part of political representative to opposition rooted in religious dogma violates that concept of religious freedom.
Potential Benefits of Stem Cell Science:
The tragedy resulting from the political opposition to stem cell research is a function of the degree to which it appears stem cell science will benefit the human community. Never before in history is it more important to than it is now to allow scientific research capable of ameliorating human disease. Currently, it is widely believed that the Medicare and Medicaid systems are unsustainable in the long-term and the rising cost of healthcare and health insurance dominate national domestic concerns.
Notwithstanding that much research still needs to be done, it is relatively clear that the future applications of what has already been accomplished in the field holds the closest thing to a key to human health and wellness. The applications of stem cell science will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer's, Arthritis, Cancer, Cystic Fibrosis, Diabetes, Obesity, Parkinson's, Sickle Cell, and Tay Sachs Disease, just to name a few of myriad others (Levine, 2008; Lo, Chuang, & Lamb, 2003).
Similarly, stem cell science likely holds the key to an effective treatment for traumatic paralysis and researchers have already demonstrated the restoration of ambulation in animal subjects whose spinal cords had been severed and then restored. Even beyond traumatic paralysis, stem cell research will probably also make limb regeneration possible for victims of traumatic loss of limb, such as in the case of thousands of American veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Levine, 2008; Lo, Chuang, & Lamb, 2003).
In that regard, one of the most fascinating developments to have already shown potential in stem cell research involves the regeneration of complete functioning human organs for autogenic transplantation (Friedrich, 2004; Lo, Chuang, & Lamb, 2003). Unlike traditional organ transplantation, autogenic transplants are genetically identical to the patient's tissue. In addition to entirely eliminating any lifelong need for powerful anti-rejection drugs that compromise the patient's health in other ways and shorten life, autogenic organ transplants will also spare the lives of the thousands of patients who die annually while waiting for a suitable donor organ (Friedrich, 2004; Lo, Chuang, & Lamb, 2003).
Stem cell research has generated heated debate in the U.S. culminating in eight years of governmental restrictions imposed by the previous presidential administration. As in the case of all other aspects of medical research and clinical applications, stem cell science is legitimately and appropriately subject to objectively logical concerns, definitions, and ethical criteria. However, the principal impetus for political opposition to stem cell research has been exclusively the result of dogmatic religious-based belief that absolutely contradicts the most straightforward logical ethical principles and secular moral considerations. In all likelihood, future generations will look back at the period of American social and political history in much the same way that we now regard the medieval Church's prohibition of medical inquiry and any astronomy that contradicted biblical proclamations.
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