Stem Cell research brings with it many potentials and benefits that can help mitigate and even solve the sufferings of mankind. Regardless of these, the future of the research in the soils of America remains uncertain because many religious and conservative groups oppose and campaign against it for what they consider as moral and ethical issues. It is however herein argued that Stem Cell research is an important means of finding ways to treat and cure diseases and as such, should be conducted and supported.
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,” ). 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,”). They are primarily categorized into embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
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,”). 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. Thus, scientists and researchers prefer using embryonic stem cells over adult stem cells because the latter is less versatile and have limited uses than embryonic stem cells.
Stem Cell Research Background
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).
While Thomson’s findings were viewed by the scientific community as a breakthrough because of the embryonic cells’ medical potentials, controversy also surfaced. Those who oppose stem cell research primarily led by conservative and religious groups contend that the research should be halted and abandoned because of bio- ethical and moral issues in 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 research 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 have been created by that date. 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).
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. In July 19, 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed the stem cell research bill passed by the Senate and the House. 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.
Why Stem Cell Research should be Supported
Stem Cell Research should be conducted and supported primarily because of its potentials in the field of human health. This correlates to the idea that through stem cell research, the sufferings and pains of man brought about by illnesses and old age can be prevented, mitigated and even treated. This is the reason why medical researchers are interested in studying and pursuing their research on stem cell. For them, there is a need to pursue stem cell research 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). 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. This is promising in that current trends in organ transplants still involve deadly risks on the part of the patients whose immune systems may reject donated organs from another person’s body. Stem Cell research also brings bright hope for dying patients who are waiting without assurance for donors who can replace their body organs that no longer work and need replacement. With knowledge gained through stem cell research on the possibility of growing new organs, hope is given to patients suffering from breast cancer, severe burns and several other inflictions entailing the removal of certain body parts. Through stem cell research, it will no longer be difficult to give these patients the hope of growing back healthier organs and be able to live a healthier and happier life.
Celebrities such as Nancy Reagan, Michael J. Fox, and 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). 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. Thus, man may no longer have to go through the inflictions of age related illnesses that most of the present day elders are suffering from today. 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”. If stem cell research will be supported, Americans may not only be the ones who will benefit from it but the whole humanity.
Aside from the potentials and promises of stem cell research in the field of medicine, Herold relates that stem cell research will also 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).
The Faulty Arguments of the Opposition
Opposition to stem cell research mainly comes from pro-lifers and conservative religious groups which include 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 for them, 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 11).Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, 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).
While the contentions and arguments of those opposed against stem cell research are based on what they consider as moral and ethical issues, a through analysis of their contention that the research involves destroying human life in its early stage shows that their arguments are merely based on speculations if not faulty reasoning. For one, stem cell research is not the same as abortion such that abortion involves the intentional removal and extermination of human embryo. In addition to this, oppositionist views seem to consider that embryos are purposely killed by researchers so as to be able to conduct the research. This is not so. It is important to know that the embryos used in the research are surplus embryos that are taken with consent from
In vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. A knowledge regarding these surplus embryos will support the contention that using surplus embryos from IVF clinics does not constitute murder and thus refute the arguments of the opposition that the research entails an intended execution of human life. Surplus embryos from IVF clinics are either frozen, or unpreserved. Some of the frozen embryos, however, die during the freezing or thawing process or because of equipment malfunction. Only a few of these embryos survive and fewer are being adopted. Adoption of embryos seldom happens 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). Embryos in IVF clinics taken to be used for stem cell research logically are not murdered. They inevitably die. This therefore shows that even without stem cell research, most surplus embryos in IVF clinics will be dead and are needed to be discarded. Stem cell research, in fact, maximizes the uses of these embryos in that their contribution may ultimately bring life to millions of sick and dying people worldwide. 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 lives.
In addition to this, opponents of stem cell research contend that stem cell research is immoral because it exploits “human dignity” in its early form. It would be more immoral to see dying patients of cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart attack and other diseases suffering from pain regardless that the answer to their suffering is within reach and possible with the use of surplus human embryos that will be inevitably discarded by IVF clinics. Is it more moral to save embryos that will inevitably die than to save grown up humans who have lives to live? The answer is no. A grown up human suffering from sickness and diseases logically has more life to live than a surplus embryo that will inevitably die and discarded by IVF clinics.
Controversy in stem cell research emerged because medical researchers prefer using embryonic stem cells over adult stem cell because of their versatility and many uses. Controversy emerged in that the use of embryonic stem cells entails destroying the embryos where these stem cells come from. Those who oppose the research 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 violating human dignity in its early form. These arguments however are faulty because the embryos used in the research are surplus embryos taken with consent from IVF clinics. These embryos will inevitable die and will be discarded by IVF clinics. Thus, falsifying the argument that the research entails intentional murder of the human embryos. It is also not morally correct to consider these inevitably dying surplus embryos over the welfare of those suffering and dying from illnesses and diseases that can be otherwise treated through stem cell research. It is therefore necessary that stem cell research be pursued and supported because of its numerous potentials and benefits. The contentions of those who oppose the research should be ignored and rejected because these contentions are based on faulty and speculative arguments.