Analysis of the Issues: The ethical concern for the rights and welfare of viable infants is certainly a legitimate concern, but the central ethical analysis that pertains to stem cell research revolves around the issue of defining human life appropriately. Objective criteria like anatomical development, cognitive awareness, and above all, sentience of any degree and in any form are all legitimate bases for the definition of life and for identifying the period of gestation corresponding to the earliest conceivable safeguards necessary to prevent suffering.
On the other hand, purely subjective doctrinal claims without objective criteria of any kind are wholly inappropriate bases for defining scientific concepts like when life begins. The fact that human development varies among individuals and that it may be impossible to know exactly where sentience and other elements of "humanness" first begin in the fetus does not mean that it is impossible to identify periods of fetal development that undoubtedly precede any form of consciousness. Therefore, the protection of the fetus during the so-called "grey area" where it is impossible to rule out consciousness and sentience of any kind is justifiable under objective moral principles.
It is not justifiable to apply those same types of moral concerns to (literally) a few completely undifferentiated tissue cells in a Petri dish simply because they happen to be human tissue. This is even more obvious when one considers that similar logic would justify protecting semen and the initiation of rescue attempts for approximately 50% of all pregnancies that terminate in spontaneous abortion normally mistaken as heavy menstrual bleeding (Sagan 1997).
That is not to suggest that individuals may not accept religious definitions as the bases for their private choices and conduct. A belief that human life is particularly special because God created us in his image is a perfectly acceptable philosophical perspective with respect to one's own life; it is not an acceptable philosophical perspective with respect to imposing that religious belief on others who may not share those particular beliefs.
Forced obedience to specific religious dogma was one of the most oppressive aspects of medieval society and continued well into the beginning of the industrial age in Britain; in fact, it was one of the primary motivations for the colonial desire for independence in the New World. That concept is featured prominently in the arguments in the federalist papers memorializing the ratification process that culminated in the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The First Amendment specifically prohibits government from establishing a national religion and the Fourteenth Amendment ensures that the constitutional amendments also apply to the states individually, in addition to establishing the concept of equal protection under the law (Dershowitz 2002).
Conclusion: Stem cell research holds tremendous potential that could revolutionize medical science even more than antisepsis and antibiotics in their time, respectively. Therapeutic applications of stem cell science will eliminate the need for organ recipient lists and save the lives of thousands of patients every year who die before receiving a donation, in addition to eliminating the need for anti-rejection drugs. Similarly, many deadly cancers that have defied most conventional efforts at effective treatment are likely treatable through stem cell-related medical applications. Stem cell science also holds the key to treating numerous congenital diseases that seriously undermine human health and happiness as well as realistic hope for victims of traumatic spinal injuries and other life- altering physical injuries. Present U.S. law restricting the use of stem cells for valuable medical research is, in principle, a violation of the concept of separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution because it gives preferential treatment to the views of certain religions over others and contradicts the philosophical values of people with no specific religious orientation.
It violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it denies people who do not subscribe to Christian beliefs about the sanctity and nature of human life and about what human "life" is and is not. More importantly, it does so at the expense of the health and welfare of many millions.
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