Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Both Sides of the Debate on Embryonic Stem Cell Reseach Part 2

If you haven't read part 1, click here

Science has made many important advances over the last 50 years. Some of the most important of these advances are in the field of stem cell research. However, studies in the area of embryonic stem cell research have sparked considerable ethical disagreement. The controversy is caused by the fact that embryonic stem cells are obtained through the destruction of human embryos. This circumstance has led many people to claim that embryonic stem cell research is unethical. However, there are also many people who believe that the research is ethical and necessary to the future of modern medicine.

The debate in favor of embryonic stem cell research is based on three main arguments. The first and most important argument is that not all humans are persons. The second argument is that most of the embryos used for experimentation are left over from in-vitro fertilization. These embryos would simply be wasted if not used for research. The final argument is that all the good that will come from the research will far outweigh the negative effects of destroying the embryos.

The outcome of the embryonic stem cell debate could have serious consequences for our society. However, before the ethical arguments can be discussed, it is necessary to have some understanding of what stem cells are and why scientists find them so intriguing.

Stem cells are cells that have not yet been specialized to perform a specific bodily function. They have the ability to turn into many different types of specialized cells such as bone, muscle, and nerve cells. The two main types of stem cells are embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos. Researchers often proclaim embryonic stem cells as the most promising form of stem cell because of their potential to turn into almost any type of cell. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are taken from a more developed human. Up until recently, it was believed that adult stem cells could only turn into a limited variety of cells. However, new advances in science indicate that adult stem cells can be “reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell–like state” (NIH, 2009). These cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, may be as powerful as true embryonic stem cells. Thus, embryonic research is not the only promising form of stem cell research.

Adult stem cells, which do not raise ethical objections, also hold many possible uses. Stem cells have the potential to cure many previously untreatable diseases and disorders. According to the National Institute of Health website (2009), “Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.” Adult stem cells have already been successfully used to treat aliments such as spinal cord injuries, blindness, leukemia, and sickle cell anemia. On the contrary, embryonic stem cells have not yet been used effectively in humans. However, researchers continue to have great faith in their potential: “Stem cells offer exciting promise for future therapies, but significant technical hurdles remain that will only be overcome through years of intensive research” (NIH, 2009). Thus, while embryonic stem cells have many intriguing possibilities, it may be many years before any of them are realized.

The chief argument in favor of embryonic stem cell research is based on creating a distinction between being human and being a person. There is now agreement among most researchers that life begins at conception. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, “the preimplantation human embryo warrants serious moral consideration as a developing form of human life” (Coleman, 1998, p. 4). Thus, rather than arguing that life does not begin at conception, proponents of embryonic research now believe that personhood does not begin at conception. According to this idea, a being must possess certain qualities in order to be considered a person: “Among these are an entity’s possession of a full human genome; its potential for development into a human being; sentience; and the presence of well- developed cognitive abilities such as consciousness, reasoning ability, or the possession of self-concept” (Chapman, Frankel, & Garfinkel, 1999, p. 11). This theory points out that, although every human cell has the unique set of DNA that classifies it as a member of the human species, not every individual cell is considered a person. Thus, there must be some distinction between being human and being a person. This distinction occurs when a human becomes conscious and able to reason. Since an embryo does not possess these qualities, it is not considered a person. All human cells are not protected by law, because they are not considered people; therefore, embryos, which do not meet all the qualifications of personhood, should not be protected either.

The people who are against embryonic stem cell research see the separation of personhood from humanity not only as fallacious but also dangerous. They argue that the ambiguous definition of personhood allows too much leeway. It is impossible to define exactly the day or second that a human becomes a person. Additionally, if a human can start being a person, they can also stop being one. Thus, any human who loses the ability to reason could potentially be considered a non-person. They would then not possess any inalienable human rights. Eventually, this belief could cause anyone who is mentally handicapped or disabled to be considered less of a person than those people who are of normal mental capacity. This circumstance essentially eliminates the idea that all people are equal and possess inherent human rights.

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