Should U.S. Legalize Creating Human Embryonic Stem Cells by Cloning?

Stem cell research that holds great promise to benefit humanity by creating solution to serious problems like diabetes, cancer Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, is also surrounded by strong ethical controversy. The need to produce human embryos to be later destroyed for the generation of new stem cell lines evokes many protests. This is why some scholars suggest “using umbilical cord blood as an alternative to human embryos”, and others advocate that stem cell research be restricted to adult cell research (Cimperman, 2005, p.2).

In the US the policies concerning stem cell research are at this point more restrictive. After much soul searching President Bush decided in the summer of 2001 to allow federal grants for such research that only used sixty or so stem cell lines that have already been established. After the veto on federal funding imposed by the President, the opposition to his move against stem cell research was not muted. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist in July 2005 declared that he will support the legislative action directed against Bush’s veto. Frist added that he “no longer thinks Bush’s policy sufficiently enables scientists to pursue the “truly magnificent, truly remarkable properties” of stem cells taken from days-old human embryos” (Connolly, 2005, p.A01).

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Scientists express concerns that “limitations on federal funding will keep them from realizing the huge potential of stem cell research” (Stevens, 2003, p. 623). As a result of federal neglect for stem cell research programs, the issue has been taken over by the state authorities. Thus, on July 21, 2006, Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved the allocation of $150 billion to the state’s stem cell research establishment. With this action, he “quadrupled the amount of money available in the state to begin research on stem cells” (Gledhill, 2006, p. B-1). Cloning, in contrast to stem cell research, remains banned under the decisions passed in 1998, 2001, and 2003 by the House of Representatives.

The Need to Change the Status Quo

At the moment, the removal of the federal source of funding for stem cell research has clearly damaged the prospects of this promising endeavor. Patients who are eagerly waiting for treatment from their currently incurable conditions are forced to count on longer waiting times because the conventional morality balks at killing embryos. However, the creation of human embryos through cloning could open tremendous possibilities for medical researchers. It is impossible to estimate the number of human lives that could be saved if the scholars arrived at a viable solution. This is why it is necessary to adopt a plan that would inspire the lawmakers to change their position. The Senate can be induced to advance a proposal that would compete with the ones approved by the House of Representatives to this point.

The opponents of embryonic stem cell research hold that “deriving embryonic stem cells leads to the destruction of a human embryo, which is equivalent to murder” (Patel, Rushefsky, 2005, p. 37). There is a controversy concerning the status of the embryo and the point at which it can be equated in status to born humans. At the same time, the two types of cloning – reproductive (construction of ‘designer babies’) and therapeutic (for treatment purposes) – do not arouse the same level of concern. Patel ; Rushefsky (2005) note that “although a strong consensus among policy makers, and the general public, against reproductive cloning exists, a great deal of disagreement prevails over the issue of therapeutic cloning”.

At this point, cloning is prohibited because many people fear that the use of clones for therapeutic purposes such as inventing new treatments for diseases will at some point inevitably lead to reproductive cloning that would manipulate human heredity (the “slippery slope” argument). This is why it is imperative that stem cell research be conducted under strict guidelines.  At this point, about the only document providing such guidelines is the Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research produced by the National Academies of Science. However, many scholars point to its inadequacy since it does not cover all the areas. Magnus (2006) therefore proposes the creation of “Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight” committees” (Magnus, 2006, p.26).

However, the use of scattered committees does not seem to be enough to change the situation. It is necessary to create a national body that will solicit proposals from the scholarly community for the establishment of a national code of ethics for embryonic stem cell research and cloning. The academic community should then evaluate the viability of the code, the prospects for its enforcement, and assess how effective they are in prevention of “slippery slope” to reproductive cloning. In case a viable code is put together supported by an impressive infrastructure to assist its enactment, the US policy-makers can implement laws allowing cloning with a greater degree of safety. In this case, the decision to legalize therapeutic cloning and not the reproductive option is likely to garner more support in the public and among legislators.

The Details of the Plan

The plan to promote the introduction of a comprehensive ethics code governing stem cell research relying on cloning is to be part of the advocating campaign to secure permission for such research. The idea is that research governed by strict guidelines is more likely to secure such permission. The previous opposition to human cloning was caused in part by its uncontrollable nature and fear of unintended consequences. Scholars should do everything in their power to make this endeavor adhere to strict ethical guidelines.

Since the National Academies of Science was the first body to present official guidelines for stem cell research, it will be natural to appoint this body as the agent responsible for implementing the plan. However, decisions in this case should be made unilaterally. Instead, the agent should seek input from the broader scientific community and consider all proposals submitted by qualified individuals. The formation of a special committee addressing this need can be a solution to the problem.

The creation of such an ethical code should take into consideration a wide range of issues. Thus, this involves matters of “free and informed consent, both of donors and recipients, the responsibility of accurate risk- benefit assessment”, “the anonymity of the donors and security and safety of cell banks and of the confidentiality and privacy of the genetic information as well as the tissue they contain” (Harris, 2004, p. 115). The code should propose clear guidelines for presentation and processing of information so that the academic community could make use of reliable data. Other issues to be considered are the compensation for the participants of the study contributing their genetic material. To protect the safety of cloned materials, special rules are to be devised for transportation of such matter across national borders. Women’s rights should be given as much attention as those of cloned embryos. In general, any research that relies on the use of human subjects is bound to involve a host of ethical issues.

Over the history, there have been questions relating to “the nature and practice of informed consent, and research on vulnerable populations, such as children, prisoners, and the mentally ill” (Resnik, Shamoo, 2003, p. 181). Scientific community responded to this challenge with the formulation of numerous policies relating to the guidelines of human subjects research.

It is also a must to create an infrastructure in the research institutions that will oversee the implementation of the code. The creation of ethics oversight committees can be a good option. These committees can include the prominent scientists of the institution and report to the specially created committee within the National Academies of Science.

The Advantages of the Plan

An alternative to the plan can be the proposal to have guidelines for stem cell research developed by the centralized authority. For example, the National Academies of Science can review its own proposal, perfecting and complementing it. However, such a plan has a downside as the product of efforts of a few designated individuals is likely to be weaker than the one produced with the input of a broader scholarly community. Besides, the feeling of being related to the plan is likely to help implement it with the efforts of the same people who helped formulate the code.

Another alternative is to preserve the status quo that is now in existence, that is, preserve the ban on cloning and allow limited funding for stem cell research on existing lines. However, as has already been stated, this situation unfairly deprives many patients suffering from chronic and acute conditions of the possibility to survive and improve their health. At the moment, “the lack of new organs is a major barrier in helping many patients who have a very short life expectancy” (Bedford-Strohm, 2002, p.240). These organs obtained from cloned embryos can be used for the benefit of patients who suffer from serious conditions. The preservation of the status quo will deprive these people of their chance of a fulfilling and healthy life. While millions of people in the US and other nations suffer from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other debilitating conditions, the Congress was accused of “prolonging their suffering” (Moran, 2003, p.41).

Addressing Disadvantages

Envisaging a policy change, it is wise to consider its disadvantages as well as advantages. In the case of the proposed policy, the major downside is that it does not guarantee the positive outcome in terms of policy change. The legalization of stem cell research using clones depends on the political movements and shifts in divisions in the House of Representatives and Congress and not just public initiatives. However, concerted public action can help bring desired policy changes closer. If stem cell research becomes controllable and can generate predictable outcomes, there is a greater likelihood to involve wide masses of public in its implementation.

Another possible drawback may be the failure of the proposed code to address all possible pitfalls that can lead to the “slippery slope” to reproductive cloning. Inadequate implementation can also be an issue if the proposed infrastructure proves less effective than it is desired at this point. However, these threats are not of such magnitude as to prevent the implementation of the plan. Research on nuclear physics also has dangerous consequences, yet humanity does not stop before conducting it, although the benefits to this point have been of a purely economic nature. Therefore, it is necessary to continue with stem cell research that uses clones and strive for adequate research ethics in the process.

Conclusion

Medical scientists claim that “medical research has become as much a “form of life” as the technology it creates” (Callahan, 2003, p. 1). By allowing cloning for therapeutic purposes, the United States will create a new “form of life” and a new way of thinking about human bodies. What seemed impossible a few years ago can suddenly become easy and achievable. However, this breakthrough in medical technology will require an appropriate change in mentality.

Legalization of human cloning to produce embryonic stem cells seems to be only a matter of time. However, the proposal advanced is important because it can speed up such legalization and make its consequences more desirable and less dramatic for the human beings. Development and implementation of a reliable code of ethics created with the proposals advanced by the scholarly community is an important step in making research safer and less prone to give rise to unwanted applications of medical achievements.

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