Controversy of Stem Cell Research
As more technology advances in certain areas, the morality of using or conducting research in these areas becomes very controversial. Stem cell research is not any less controversial than other biological and environmental issues such as nuclear energy, cloning or genetically modified foods. In fact, stem cell research is becoming the most controversial issue of the century as it promises to save lives but the morality of it is being harshly questioned.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can become specialized cells to perform specific functions. The three major types of stem cells are toutipotent stem cells, embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells (Slack 2). There are no moral issues with adult stem cells because they are relatively easy to extract and it doesn’t involve destruction of an embryo. However, the reason why scientists are not happy enough with adult stem cells is because their applications are limited and their complications are numerous. One of the problems with adult stem cells is that they are tissue specific, meaning they can only differentiate into certain types of tissues. In contrast, embryonic stem cells can differentiate into any type of cells. The fact that embryonic stem cells can become any type of cells gives us hope to find the treatment for some chronic diseases that are threatening thousands if not millions of lives every year. Some of the diseases that embryonic stem cell research promise to cure are diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries, to name a few. The only ethical problem with embryonic stem cells is that in order to extract these cells, a fertilized zygote must be invaded and destroyed (Salter 10).
In 2001, when President George W. Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, he pointed out that “human life is a sacred gift from our creator” and science has no right to take that gift away (qtd. in “George W. Bush and the Stem Cell Research Funding Ban”). This is the main argument that opponents of stem cells are holding, the killing of an embryo for research purposes. But do scientists really kill embryos to get these cells? Having better knowledge and education about the procedure allows us to make a better critical judgment.
Many people have a misconception that doctors and researchers get embryonic stem cells from embryos of pregnant women. In fact, the procedure is much less invasive than that. Researchers get fertilized embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics with an approval from the patients. These fertilized embryos are usually the remainder and if they were not used in research they would be discarded. California Institute for Regenerative Medicine confirms that “All human embryonic stem cell lines in use today were created from embryos generated by in vitro fertilization (IVF) and donated for research purposes after the couple had completed their family” (CIRM.ca.gov). If these extra embryos have no chance growing into human beings, what’s the problem of using them in research to save millions of lives instead of discarding them? Even if every single person became aware of the process and became knowledgeable and certain that embryos are not killed the way they thought they were, there are still going to be some opponents.
The deeper issue here is not the morality of the stem cell research; it is more of a trust issue. The hidden fact is that people are afraid of the unknown. They are uncertain that scientists, businessmen and the public will use the power of stem cells responsibly. Despite the promises and potential benefits of stem cell research, the probability that this technology will be abused is still high. There is a possibility that stem cell research opens the doors to designer babies. Also, once more politics and business get involved, it is not unexpected that women might get pregnant for the purpose of selling their embryos. Unauthorized, uncertified and fake stem cells clinics are also a big problem. In fact, there are currently multiple of fake stem cell clinics around the world and they are making a good business out of it. In 2011, scientists were arrested in the USA for illegally supplying untested stem cell treatments to their patients. According to Bionews.org, “It is alleged that the team made more than $1.5 million since starting the scheme in March 2007” (Timmis).
Technology is a double-edge weapon. This applies to nuclear energy, genetically modified foods, the internet, stem cell research, etc. If we take nuclear energy as an example, some people will argue that it reduces carbon emission, which will save Earth from global warming. Other people will argue that nuclear and radioactive wastes have big health and environmental risks. Both points of view are valid and the morality of nuclear energy cannot be decided. This is because morals are personal beliefs and we shouldn’t subject technology to morality. There’s no right or wrong about technology, it just depends on how we use it and how we view it. This takes us back to the real question; not whether or not stem cell research is ethical, but rather can we trust ourselves not to abuse stem cell research?
The answer is no. However, with strict regulations and public awareness we can minimize the challenges to some degree. These challenges should not be an obstacle towards innovation and saving millions of suffering patients around the world.
N.P. California’s Stem Cell Agency. California Institution for Regenerative Medicine, 2013. Web. 2 April 2015.
Park, Alice. “George W. Bush and the Stem Cell Research Funding Ban.” Time. Time, 20 Aug. 2012. Web. 2 April 2015.
Salter, Brain. “The Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Science”. Global Governance 13 (2007): 10. Print.
Slack, Jonathan. Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Timmis, Oliver. “Arrests in US After Fake Stem Cell Therapies Sold to Terminally III”. Bionewes. Bionewes, 9 Jan 2011. Web. 2 April 2015.