Medical Ethics of Stem Cell Research

The benefits to society by the introduction of new medical technologies have been considerable. For example, the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics has significantly improved the well-being of people all over the globe. The science of stem cell treatments, potentially as or more significant as these other innovations, is beginning a new stage of exploration and growth that could be the forerunner of unprecedented cures and therapies. The present enthusiasm over prospective stem cell-produced remedies radiates from the innovations of genetic biology. Though one cannot forecast the results from basic research, there is enough information available to suggest that a good deal of this enthusiasm is justified.

The three main objectives given for pursuing stem cell research are obtaining vital scientific information about embryonic development; curing incapacitating ailments such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and testing new drugs instead of having to use animals (Irving, 1999). Stem cell research is also expected to aid victims of stroke, spinal cord injuries, bone diseases, and diabetes. It has been substantiated from animal research that stem cells can be differentiated into cells that will behave appropriately in their transplanted location. For example, the transplantation of stem cells following cancer treatments has found much success for many years. “Experiments such as the transplantation of fetal tissue into the brains of Parkinson’s patients indicate that the expectation that stem cell therapies could provide robust treatments for many human diseases is a reasonable one. It is only through controlled scientific research that the true promise will be understood” (Frankel, 1999). The scientific techniques for obtaining stem cells could lead to unparalleled advances and even cures for these and other ailments.

The moral dilemma that surrounds the prohibition of aborted fetuses is the idea of abortion itself. However, collecting stem cells from an aborted fetus, in reality, makes a great deal of sense. After all, why would those who claim to be ‘pro-choice’ want to waste the aborted tissue? For that matter, why would pro-lifers want to witness what they believe is a living being tossed away in vain? At least its ‘life’ could have meant something to humanity in a very real way. In 1999 alone, more than 850,000 abortions were performed in the U.S. (Elam-Evans et al, 2002). Whatever moral or political position, the fact is, all these fetuses could have served to advance scientific and medical knowledge in immeasurable ways. Those who believe they are taking the moral ground when it comes to the ‘unborn’ are perfectly willing to allow those who are breathing to suffer needlessly without hope of the possibility for a quicker cure through the efforts of stem cell research.

More than half of European countries and others around the world such as Japan allow for embryonic stem cell research in various degrees. Australia followed the UK in allowing the use of tissue from aborted fetuses, with the parent’s consent, for scientific experimentation. “Here in Australia we would be allowed to use it [aborted fetus for embryonic research]. There would be no impediment to that” (Robotham & Smith, 2002). According to Health-Day, a daily news service reporting on consumer health, Swiss physicians at the University of Lausanne discovered that a two-and-a-half-inch piece of skin from a fetus, which was aborted at 14 weeks, provided several million grafts that were used to treat burn victims. The study also found that skin cells from an aborted fetus healed burns faster than standard grafts. Patrick Hohlfeld, the prime author of the study said “the use of fetal skin has tremendous potential because taking just one skin graft gives you the potential to treat thousands of people” (Strode, 2005). By contrast, the U.S. restricts the use of any new embryonic cells to be used. It has been suggested that only fetuses of stillbirths be used. However, the collecting of embryonic germ cells would be extremely challenging as there is only a small amount of time to collect these cells. There would also be problems using these cells for research as stillbirths might have resulted from a genetic irregularity. Embryonic germ cells can be derived from a five to the eight-week-old fetus, four months before having an EEG pattern. (The distinction between embryo and fetus is the end of the 8th week) (Sullivan, 2004).

Because abortion is legal the ethical question is not in the status of the fetus as it has already been aborted, but rather the immorality of those who would stand in the way of scientific research that would greatly benefit all of humanity. Religion has historically attempted to keep information from the masses and to thwart scientific research. In this age of communication, science will prevail in at least some parts of the world. When stem cell research becomes widely accepted, the U.S. will eventually participate but will then be well behind the curve of technological and structural systems. This industry will pump money into many economies while the U.S. is catching up. Many people will be presented with the possibility of being treated for horrific diseases in other countries while the U.S. lags and its citizens continue to suffer.

Arguments have also been made against stem cell research based on religious grounds, but a look into the actual stance of the religious community shows a varied response. The Mormon church is neutral regarding stem cell research although it opposes abortion with the possible exceptions of cases of incest, rape, or danger to the mother’s health. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations supports research but only if it entails frozen embryos that remain unused from test-tube baby labs. Many Muslims consider that the most convincing moral argument for using embryos is that it could someday combat dread diseases. Representing Protestants, Conservative and Reform Jews, and Unitarians amongst others, The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice encourages unimpeded rights to abortion. The coalition believes the medical potential justifies research that employs the test-tube leftovers or aborted fetuses. The Catholic Church instructs its followers that ‘the life of every human being is to be respected’ and it passionately opposes destroying embryos, whether by abortion or research. Eastern Orthodox and evangelical Protestant leaders generally concur. The California Council of Churches, however, “supports a $3 billion state program that involves stem cell harvesting through destruction of cloned embryos” (Ostling, 2005).

These results indicate there are very few reasons why stem cell research should not be pursued and tremendous reasons why it should be. Religious zealots are again attempting to slow scientific advancement by advocating dogma over science and reason. Proponents of abortion rights and stem cell research recognize that if the moral status of embryos and fetuses is exclusively a religious matter, it should be kept in the private dominion of faith rather than being a matter of political debate. The moral majority is morally bankrupt on this issue. Nancy Reagan finally got it but why can’t others on the religious right understand that their ‘morals’ are only hurting living, breathing people every day such as Ronald Reagan in the final ten years of his life.

Works Cited

Elam-Evans, Laurie D.; Strauss, Lilo T.; Herndon, Joy; Parker, Wilda Y.; Whitehead, Sara; & Berg, Cynthia J. “Abortion Surveillance – United States, 1999.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control, 2002.

Frankel, Mark. “Stem Cell Research and Applications: Findings and Recommendations.” Stem Cell Research and Applications Scientific, Ethical and Policy Issues. 1999. American Association for the Advancement of Science and Institute for Civil Society. 2008. Web.

Irving, Dianne N. “Stem Cell Research: Some Pros and Cons.” Written on request of Fr. Thomas King, S.J., Ph.D., Department of Theology, Georgetown University; President, University Faculty For Life, for their newsletter, UFL Pro-Vita, 1999.

Ostling, Richard N. “A Balance of Benefits in Stem Cell Debate: Divisions Among Religious Groups Suggest Theological Thicket in Life-or-Life Questions.” Washington Post, 2005, p. B09.

Robotham, Julie & Smith, Deborah. “Abortions Set to Fuel Stem Cell Research.” The Sydney Morning Herald. 2002.

Strode, Tom. “Life Digest: New Stem Cell Research Encouraging but Problematic; Researchers Find New Use for Aborted Babies.” Baptist Press News. 2005.

Sullivan, Patricia. “Frequently Asked Questions: Do Stem Cells Come From Aborted Fetuses?” International Society for Stem Cell Research, 2004.

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