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Ethics of Stem Cell Research
Nothing has stimulated debate and controversy in America like the idea of stem cell research. Stem cells, which are often harvested from human embryos, have demonstrated the potential for a number of scientific and therapeutic purposes, from curing cancer and Alzheimer's disease, to repairing damage to hearts, kidneys, and other organs. Opponents of stem cell research claim that because these cells have the potential to develop into human life, that the harvesting of these cells from embryos, which results in the termination of the embryo, is immoral. Whether the embryo is left over from a fertility clinic, or created specifically for the purpose of harvesting these cells, opponents see no difference. Unfortunately those who oppose stem cell research base their argument on a flawed presupposition: that all potential human life must be treated as if it were a fully developed human life. They assert that the potential for human life naturally gives something the same rights as a living human being. In recent years, scientists have demonstrated that this premise is false, and that stem cells are simply blank human cells that have the potential to be turned into whatever kind of cell is necessary, and that those who oppose stem cell research are projecting human characteristics on a mass of undifferentiated cells.
Stem Cells are "special cells with unique abilities." (Allman, 16) They are "blank" cell, or cells that are undifferentiated. While every other type of human cell is designed for a specific purpose; muscles, nerves, skin, etc., stem cells are cells that have not differentiated, or become a specific kind of cell. "Pluripotent" stem cells are undifferentiated cells that are found in embryos. During sexual reproduction a sperm cell from the male fertilizes an egg cell from the woman. From the union of these two cells a single zygote is formed. During the initial days, the zygote reproduces again and again, forming a mass of undifferentiated cells which will eventually differentiate into the different parts of the human body. But before these cells become skin cells, muscle cells, bone cells, etc., they are a mass of blank human cells: stem cells. At this point these cells can, through scientific manipulation, be used for a number of therapeutic treatments.
Another kind of stem cells are called "multipotent" stem cells, and these cells can be found in adults or in babies' umbilical cords. These type of stem cells have a more limited capacity. "Their development is limited to the cells that make up the organ system that they originated from." ("Academic Health Center") However, a specific type of multipotent stem cell, called a "hematopoietic" stem cell, which is derived from the blood system, seems to have the ability "to self-renew continuously in the marrow and to differentiate into the full complement of cell types found in the blood…" ("Stem Cells and the Future," 19) Because of this ability to be used in therapy, these types of stem cells are considered to be the premier adult stem cell in treating leukemia and other cancers, blood disorders, and diseases of the immune system.
Researchers believe that the potential uses of stem cells are unlimited, particularly pluripotent stem cells. It is believed that stems cells hold the potential to grow replacement cells, or whole organs, which could treat a variety of conditions from "Parkinson disease to heart failure to spinal injuries." ("Academic Health Center") They could also repair organs in the body that are not functioning properly, as in the case of diabetics. Through researching how cells become differentiated, scientists could unlock the secret to why cancer cells develop, or genetic diseases. Stem cells can also be used in research as a testing ground for new drugs. They are more accurate than testing on animals and can be used to replace real humans in the testing process.
Since multipotent stem cells are derived from adults, or the umbilical cords of babies, the type of research involving these kinds of stem cells is usually not considered controversial. However, pluripotent stem cells, because they are derived from a human embryo, and in order to collect them the researchers must terminated the embryo, the use of these kinds of stem cells is considered extremely controversial. (Francis, 13-14) When dealing with stem cell research, a number of ethical issues arise, which often cause a great deal of disagreement between scientist, ethicists, researchers, academics, and government officials.
The first and main issue that arises when dealing with human embryos is the question of when does an embryo become a human being? Critics of stem cell research often claim that life begins at conception, at the point where a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell. While this may be a good theoretical starting point, the fact that the cells which arise from the zygote are undifferentiated cells. That is the reason why they are used in research. While many religious and other scientifically unknowledgeable people may claim that a mass of undifferentiated cells is a human being, (Hyun, 2010) this mass of cells does not even have the minimal inclination toward a human being. There are no skin cells, bone cells, or any other organs which make up a human being.
It may be true that these cells possess the necessary DNA to make a human being, but so does a single strand of hair that falls to the floor and is swept away. No one would claim that a human hair is the same as a human being, or entitled to the same rights. Consequently, those who claim that a mass of undifferentiated cells is equivalent to an entire human being are simply imposing on this mass of cells human characteristics which are simply not there.
But given the argument that these people make, let's assume that anything that could potentially become a human being must be allowed to develop naturally, then "it is false to claim that all early-stage embryos have the potential for complete human life… Potentiality is by no means guaranteed." (Hyun, 2010) Researchers assert that upwards of 75%-80% of all embryos created through natural intercourse fail to result in pregnancy. (Hyun, 2010) If nature itself seems to be careless of these cells, and more often than not a fertilized egg will end up wasted, then the argument that each fertilized cell is a potential human life and must be allowed to come to term is false and does not follow the precepts of nature.
If one gets past the idea that stem cells have the potential to become human beings, and the idea that every single potential human life must be allowed to develop, then the idea of stem cell research opens up almost limitless possibilities for scientific research. But then one must ask the question, from where does the scientific community obtain stem cells? There are currently two possibilities to answer this question, either they use already fertilized, but frozen eggs from a fertility clinic, or they purposefully fertilize a human egg cell with a human sperm cell for the sole intention of terminating it and collecting it's stem cells. (Panno 18-19)
When fertility clinics no longer need the fertilized eggs in their care, they usually destroy them if the client wishes it. But whether or not these zygotes are destroyed or remain frozen, it is up to the person to whom these cells belong to decide what to do with them. It is a matter of informed consent on the part of the client, the person who paid for the artificial insemination, as to what they will do with their property. Women can choose to donate their fertilized eggs for research, if they are fully aware of the situation and are not induced to surrender their property through coercion or payments. If stem cell research is to be conducted on fertilized eggs, it must be completely voluntary or else the accumulation of these cells may be considered unethical. (Lo, 2009)
When it comes to lines of stem cells that have created specifically for the purpose of research, there must be consent on the part of both the donors of the sperm and eggs, which will be used for fertilization in order to then harvest the undifferentiated stem cells. However, since it has already been determined that most fertilized eggs do not end up in pregnancies, and that at the time of harvesting, the zygote consists of only a mass of undifferentiated cells, there are really no ethical concerns over harvesting the stem cells. And if fully informed and consenting adults wish to donate their genetic material for research, they certainly have that right. And just because that research involves harvesting stem cells from human zygotes, does not matter in the realm of ethics.
Many have attempted to curtail stem cell research on the basis of the cells coming from something that may potentially become a human being. These people personify a mass of undifferentiated cells with the characteristics of a fully developed human being. But…[continue]
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