Stem cell research has presented the nation with one of the most divisive ethical issues of the modern age. Aside from the biological implications of stem cell research, many question the morality of issues involving embryos, cloning, and genetic engineering, to identify a few.
While the debate is relatively new, it is rapidly becoming one of the most controversial ethical issues of today. As with most technological advances, the key question is not whether progress is right or wrong, but rather will society use the new power responsibly.
To provide some scientific background on the issue, a stem cell is a cell that has the potential to develop into a number of different types of cells in the body. First discovered in the early 1900s, stem cells were identified and named when researchers realized that various types of blood cells all originated from a particular “stem cell” (UKSCF, 2007).
When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain the same or become another type of cell in the body with a more specialized function, such as a brain cell, red blood cell, or muscle cell (U.S. Dept. of Health, 2009). For this reason, stem cells are expected to be able to effectively treat a wide variety of diseases and ailments, including spinal cord injury, diabetes, heart disease, blood disorders, and Parkinson’s Disease.
Another potential function of stem cells is the ability to create cells, tissue, and even synthetic blood that can be used in medical therapies (AGI News, 2009), thus closing the gap between the high demand for donated organs and tissues and the limited supply currently available for patients in need.
There are two types of stem cells with which scientists can work: adult and embryonic.
Most of the controversy surrounding stem cell research involves embryonic stem cells because they are derived from fertilized embryos, which are subsequently destroyed in the research process.
The embryos used for research, however, are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body; rather they are fertilized in vitro in a fertilization clinic and donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donor (Newman, 2009). If they are not used to contribute to the medical community, these embryos will be kept deep frozen in a clinic or discarded altogether. It is for this reason that many supporters of stem cell research argue that the process cannot be accurately compared to destroying human life if the embryo’s ultimate fate was going to be disposal from the onset of the procedure. It is also not clear as to whether or not the biological fetus is a person and has rights (Garrett, Baille, & Garrett, 2001).
An adult (or somatic) stem cell, on the other hand, is an undifferentiated cell found among differentiated cells in an organ or tissue that has the ability to renew itself, as well as differentiate into a specialized cell type. By their nature, adult stem cells are not as controversial because they can be derived from an individual who may require the therapy by extracting them from the bone marrow or skin cells (National Institues of Health, 2009).
Stem cells, however, do not come only from embryos, bone marrow, and skin. A popular service called cord blood banking is now offered to the families of newborn infants who want to preserve a child’s stem cells after birth so that they may be accessed later should stem cell therapy ever become necessary. The cells derived from the baby’s umbilical cord can also be used to treat blood relatives. If a family decides not to store these cells by having them frozen after birth, then the genetically unique cord blood stem cells are discarded (Cord Blood Registry, 2009).
Perhaps on its basis in science and progress as well as ethics and morality, stem cell research has proven to be a highly charged political topic. On August 9, 2001, former president George W. Bush signed an executive order declaring that federal funding for stem cell research could only be used for existing stem cell lines created before that day. Of the 60 embryonic stem cell lines authorized for research at the time, only 21 proved to be useful for researchers (CNN, 2009).
Although Bush’s executive order did not prohibit privately funded stem cell research, scientists and advocates claim that the loss of federal support was a crippling blow to research endeavors in the United States, although other countries continued to make progress in the field (Block, 2009).
Nearly eight years later, the stem cell debate was re-ignited when President Barack Obama overturned Bush’s executive order by signing one of his own on March 9, 2009 that permitted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research once more (Newman, 2009). Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” during his presidency. The scientific community considered this act to be a crucial step in making strides in stem cell research.
Another crucial step was made by Geron Corporation about a month before Obama’s executive order; the company, a developer of therapeutic products for the treatment of cancer and chronic degenerative diseases, was granted clearance by the FDA to conduct the world’s first clinical study of a human embryonic stem cell based therapy in man on January 23, 2009 (Geron, 2009).
Another company, Osiris Therapeutics, has received FDA fast-track clearance for the use of Prochymal, an “intravenously administered formulation of mesenchymal stem cells” (Osiris, 2009). Prochymal is currently in both Phase II and Phase III clinical trials, including research on post- heart attack repair, protection of lung tissue against obstructive pulmonary disease, and the preservation of pancreatic islet cells in people with type 1 diabetes. Osiris is also researching the use of another cocktail of mesenchymal stem cells, called Chondrogen, to be injected into a patient to treat arthritis of the knee (Osiris, 2009).
Since then, President Obama has been denounced by prominent religious leaders, government officials, and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research while simultaneously being praised by scientists, investors, advocates, and potential patients. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that the destruction of a fertilized embryo for research purposes is immoral, whereas supporters believe that discarding an embryo that will never mature to become a living being is a morally unsound act when the embryo in question could provide stem cells that could subsequently be used to help save millions of lives in the future.
While the issue of stem cell research is decidedly polarized, it is not without its gray areas. Some opponents of embryonic stem cell research support adult stem cell research whereas others are avidly against both. Even some of the strongest supporters of both adult and embryonic stem cell research have concerns about the effect it could have if the technology is abused. Despite the benefits discussed above, there is still a possibility that the technology can be abused to clone more than just organs, and that preventative treatments may evolve into creating so-called “designer babies” by manipulating genetics. There is also the prospect of women becoming pregnant for the sole purpose of selling their embryos once stem cell treatments become commercialized and marketable. At the same time, completely separate groups of supporters have more personal concerns and agendas, such as being given the opportunity to save a dying relative.
Simply stated, some people may view the process of stem cell research as destructive and immoral while others may see it as one of the greatest advancements in scientific history. Although neither side of the ethical debate can be identified as right or wrong because morals are grounded in personal beliefs and perspectives, it is important to take into consideration the limitations that exist with current medical practices and the ways in which stem cell research could raise medical technology to the next plateau.
It is natural for humans to be fearful of the unknown, and the status quo is not often changed without a fight. Consider Galileo Galilei, who is now dubbed the “father of science.” He was condemned to house arrest for the remainder of his life because his controversial views on planetary orbits did not coincide with those of the Catholic Church (McMullin, 2005). Without his discovery and willingness to go against the grain, however, it’s possible that astronomers may still believe that all heavenly bodies revolve around the earth.
As for the argument that stem cell research can be abused for monetary gain or vanity, one must remember the adage that with great power comes great responsibility. The ability to create fire, for example was one of the most important discoveries in our evolution as a species because of its multiple uses that aided in survival: seeing in the dark, staying warm in freezing environments, and cooking meals to prevent illness. This important tool, however, was often abused and used to destroy villages or burn people at the stake. Does this mean humans would have been better off without it based on its potential to be used as an unethical tool of destruction? It is a generally accepted reality that making progress coincides with taking risks.
A similar argument can be made for the Internet. Some will proclaim that the Internet brought the world together by allowing instant communication from anywhere on Earth, and also provided a portal to unlimited information that otherwise would not be readily available, for example, this document.
Conversely, others will say that the Internet provides a safe haven for predators and creates opportunity for criminal enterprises. Both arguments would be correct, but neither point of view can effectively make a case for the Internet’s morality. This is because technology does not have a moral compass, and it is only as good or evil as the person — or society — wielding it.
This debate is not about whether stem cell research is ethical or not. Rather, it is about whether or not we can trust ourselves as a society to handle its vast potential in an appropriate way. Humans are historically fallible, but human imperfections should not lead society to dismiss innovation. Instead, we must evolve as a species in order to adapt to our own advancements while working together to protect ourselves from ourselves, while paradoxically attempting to save ourselves from diseases and other ailments.
Stem cell research will most likely not be fully embraced by all parts of society any time soon, though the solution may be to take small steps in this direction; in other words, perhaps the best solution is to begin research solely on adult stem cells, and then determine the need to introduce embryonic stem cells into research later after further study. Then again, how will we ever master the potential of embryonic stem cells in a safe, ethical way unless we research them? Especially since human embryonic stem cells have already proven themselves to be more flexible than adult stem cells.