Stem Cell Research: An issue in American Culture

In 2004, following the death of former United States President Ronald Reagan from the degenerative Alzheimer’s disease, a campaign led by Nancy Reagan and her family was launched to persuade President Bush to alleviate the US government-imposed restrictions on stem cell research. While other countries such as Britain, Japan and Korea have embarked on, and are now engaged in stem cell research, harvesting of stem cells from embryos remains to be a debatable issue in the United States. The future of stem cell research in the American culture remains to be uncertain in that several sides and concerns are being considered foremost of which is the moral issue on the research.

 Supporters of the research spearheaded by member of the scientific community and others, like the Reagan family, see the research as a means of finding ways to treat and cure human diseases. Religious groups, on the other hand, like the Roman Catholic Church and several other conservative protestant churches belong to the other side of the debate as they see stem cell research as a means of exploiting helpless lives of human embryos.What are Stem Cells?Stem cells are unspecialized type of human or animal cells that can produce mature specialized body cells such as blood cells, heart cells and brain cells, and at the same time replicate themselves (“Stem Cells,” 2004). Stem cells can repair or replace damaged body tissues because stem cells are less likely than other foreign cells to be rejected by the immune system when implanted in the body (“Stem Cells,” 2004). They are primarily categorized into embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

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Embryonic stem cells can be extracted from a blastocyst or a very young embryo, about four to five days old and comprised of 200 to 250 cells. Embryonic cells can develop to into any of the 220 cell types of the human body given the necessary stimuli. Otherwise, these embryonic cells continue to divide and the new cells retain the ability to develop into any mature cell type.The abilities to replicate itself and to develop into any mature cell type make the embryonic cell a potential cure to a number of diseases and injuries.Adult stem cells can be extracted from the tissues of both adult and children without inflicting harm or death to the subject.

Adult stem cells function to replenish dying cells and regenerate damaged tissues (“Stem Cells,” 2004).  Most researchers, however, agree that there are limited uses of adult stem cells such that unlike embryonic stem cells that can develop into any of the 220 types of cells, adult stem cells can only be used to produce some of these 220 human cells.Potentials of the Stem CellMedical researchers are interested in studying and pursuing their research on stem cell because of its potential to help improve human health including that of around 128 million Americans suffering from various diseases. While most of the studies are preliminary and privately funded, scientists believe stem cells have the potential to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis (Stevens, 2003). Medical researchers also view stem cells as a potential in creating entire new organs for transplant and they can potentially repair or replace damaged tissues because they are less likely to be rejected by the immune system when implanted in the human body. Stem cells can also help diabetic patients and those whose hearts were damaged by a heart attack (Stevens, 2003).The ControversyControversy in stem cell research was commenced by studies conducted by James A.

Thomson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin who isolated the first human embryonic stem cells from human embryos. The findings of the study was published in the journal Science where Thomson and his group reported that they have created self- perpetuating colonies in culture by harvesting embryonic stem cells from leftover embryos (Hall, 2006).While Thomson’s findings were viewed by the scientific community as a breakthrough because of the embryonic cells’ medical potentials, controversy also surfaced because of bio- ethical and moral issues on destroying human embryos to start embryonic cell cultures.

It also appears to violate the Dickey amendment signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 which declares as illegal the use of federal money to fund stem cell researches that destroy human embryos. Thus, Thomson’s experiment commenced a controversy that has become an object of a political and moral debate. On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the National Institutes of Health could issue federal research grants only for embryonic stem cell lines that had been created by that date. In July 19, 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed the stem cell research bill passed by the Senate and the House which aimed to increase the current number of existing stem cell lines.

The debate on stem cell research therefore continues because President Bush’s decisions have had efforts to meet halfway both of the demands and views of the supporters and opponents of stem cell research.The IssueThe use and extraction of adult stem cells in research do not pose much controversy because harvesting them does not harm cause harm to the subject.  The use of embryonic stem cells, however, has sparked controversies and debates, and became the primary issue in stem cell research. This is largely due to the technique used in creating them.

At present, there are two methods of developing embryonic cell lines that will be used for research: isolation of stem cells directly from an embryo, which necessitates the destruction of the embryo where the stem cells are harvested; and cell nuclear transfer, also known as embryo-cloning (Stevens, 2003). Cloning, the second method employed to develop embryonic stem cells is in itself already a controversial issue. Scientists and researchers, however, prefer using embryonic stem cells than adult stem cells because the latter is less versatile and have limited uses than embryonic stem cells. President Bush’s decision in 2001 that federal funds can be issued to fund stem cell research provided only the embryonic cell lines that were already created by that date has posed limitations on the research. This mandate restricted researchers to use the then existing 72 lines of stem cells but by May 2003, most of these lines had become useless and by mid 2006, only 22 remained and many of them were of limited usefulness because of DNA damage (Robinson 2006). Nevertheless, President Bush’s decision neither made pro-lifers happy such that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called the President’s decision as “morally unacceptable” (Brookhiser, 2003).Considering the potentials of stem cell research in medical breakthroughs and the limitations of the remaining stem cell lines, the senate and the congress approved the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act earlier in 2006. The bill was, however,  vetoed by President Bush  in July 19, 2006 contending that “the bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others”, and that “it crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect” (Babington, 2006).

The debate on stem cell research therefore continues with supporters led by medical researchers and policy makers; and opponents led by the Roman Catholic Church, several conservative protestant churches and pro- life groups.The Supporter’s ViewsCelebrities such as Nancy Reagan, Michael J. Fox, and the late Christopher Reeve, supported and campaigned for stem cell research because of the potential of the embryonic stem cells to treat many diseases and injuries. Some of theses diseases are cancer, diabetes, cancer,  heart disease and Alzheimer’s which are deadly and sometimes incurable; debilitating and often fatal autoimmune disorders like lupus, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease; and such others as are kidney disease, Parkinson’s, spinal paralysis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and severe burns (Herold, 2003). It is contended by researchers that the potentials of stem cells may eradicate almost all cell based diseases. Stem cells can also give solution to age related diseases and can even alter the process of aging.

According to Herold (2003), “when stem cell treatments become available to Americans, they could end up extending people’s life spans well beyond anything one could have dreamed possible a mere 10 years ago”.Aside from these, Herold relates that researchers believe that stem cell research will advance man’s knowledge on human biology in that it will enable scientists to understand what is going on in cells during, and after development which will have tremendous impact in the way genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and muscular dystrophy are treated and cured. Moreover, by observing what goes wrong at the very earliest stage of cell development through stem cell research, scientists will be able to get a genetic blueprint of a host of diseases and birth defects, then design interventions to cure them (Herold, 2003).As for the use of embryos used in stem cell research, supporters justify that these are surplus embryos that are taken with consent from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics.

Surplus embryos from IVF clinics, according to supporters, are either frozen, or unpreserved. Some of frozen embryos, however,  die during the freezing or thawing process or because of equipment malfunction; and only a few survived and are adopted because of certain issues such as couples that produced these embryos do not want unrelated persons to raise their biological child. Unpreserved embryos ultimately die and clinics simply discard them. These surplus embryos in IVF Clinics now numbering to 400,000 in the United States alone may either be thrown away or preferably, for researchers and supporter of stem cell research, used for further experiments and studies (Robinson, 2006). Supporters therefore contend that that instead of being discarded for nothing, it would be best to utilize these embryos as using them to learn more about human cells may lead to medical knowledge that can cure and even save the lives of millions of sick people worldwide.Opposition to stem cell research mainly comes from pro-lifers, conservative religious groups which includes the Roman Catholic Church and several other protestant churches. Most of those who oppose legal abortion in the United States also oppose stem cell research because both involves destroying what they claim as human life in its early stage of development. The opposition argues that deriving stem cell culture entails killing human embryos and as such, scientists and researchers who use them become guilty of murder.

In the eyes of the opposition, all stem cell research, though legal, is illicit and immoral according to Sacred Scripture (Spees, 2002, p. 11). Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (2002), a minister and member of the World Council of Churches working group on bio-ethics contends that the reason why most Christian churches oppose research with embryos is because they “see the dignity of the human person violated when embryos are sacrificed for reasons outside themselves, as good as those reasons might be”.The techniques used in embryonic stem cell research, for them, are in conflict with ethical norms, because these techniques use early human life as a means to achieve an external end (Bedford-Strohm 2002). Similar with an issue in abortion, questions on the beginning of life have also surfaced in the stem cell research debate.

Religious groups opposing stem cell research have cited several verses in the Bible in support of their claim that destroying human embryos for research is in contrast with teachings and values in the Bible. One of these verses is in the Book of Psalms 139:13 where the psalmist said: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalms 139:13 New International Version).  For the opposition, God himself has created and given importance to life even in its early stage. It therefore follows that destroying this life, in the form of embryonic stem cell testing, is disrespect to God.Another issue raised by the opposition is with regards to the technique employed in stem cell research called cell nuclear transfer, also known as embryo-cloning. This is for reason that cloning, for conservative Christian groups, is a babylonic attempt to being equal with God, the ultimate Creator of life and all things on Earth. For them, man has no right to be like God by “creating” new life through cloning technology.

ConclusionControversy in stem cell research emerged because medical researchers prefer using embryonic stem cells over adult stem cell because of their versatility and many uses, and which entails destroying the embryos where these stem cells come from. Supporters of stem cell research, mostly scientists and researchers, and those who are inflicted with diseases that are deadly and remain incurable contend that the research is necessary to treat and even save those who are dying from incurable diseases and to advance man’s medical knowledge. Those who oppose the research, however, contend that the process employed in gathering stem cells for research constitutes murder because it entails destroying the embryos, and that it is a way of destroying life that God has given.

They also see the technique of cell nuclear transfer employed in stem cell research as another babylonic attempt of man to be like God. These moral and religious contentions and the status quo of stem cell research in the American culture explain why the future of the research remains uncertain in the United States.