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Embryos and HumanityResearch Paper

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Stem Cell Research: Why Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Unnecessary and Immoral

For decades, many people in the health sciences have been touting stem cell research as a promising means of finding cures for a range of debilitating diseases. While these promises seem to have been overstated, it does appear that stem cell research has great potential for aiding in the development of life-saving procedures. However, the topic of stem cell research remains controversial, largely because of the source of the stem cells used in the research. The term stem cell refers to cells that have the ability to turn into specific-type cells throughout the body. Stem cells can be found in the umbilical cord, but advocates for stem cell research suggest that embryonic stem cell research is necessary and that barriers to that research are hindering scientific advancement. In fact, they may suggest that a pro-life stance, informed by religious beliefs, particularly Christian religious beliefs, may actually support stem cell research and the development of therapies from stem cells. This position is not without support: "To cure disease and alleviate suffering are noble pursuits, and the Bible clearly supports the battle against physical ills. A major feature of Jesus' ministry was His healing (Matthew 4:23-24), and one of the New Testament writers, Luke, was a physician (Colossians 4:14)" ("What Should a Christian's View Be on Stem Cell Research?," N.p.). However, when viewed in the context of using embryonic stem cells for research, this position conflicts with a pro-life belief based on the idea of life beginning at conception. While people from different moral and religious backgrounds take different positions on when human life begins, there is no real argument that only a fertilized egg has the potential to turn into a human being. As a result, stem cell research based on embryos undoubtedly disrupts this potential. Given that stem cell research can be conducted without the use of embryonic stem cells, then there is no moral justification that would permit embryonic stem cell research.

Some people argue that embryonic stem cell research is not the equivalent of ending a life because the created life has no possibility of development into a human being. In order to understand that one needs to understand how embryonic stem cell therapy works. It begins with the destruction of a laboratory-fertilized human egg known as a blastocyst. Biologically, the human potential in this blastocyst is no different than a fertilized egg in a human being, or a blastocyst created for implantation into a human being in the course of a fertility treatment. That the blastocyst is created with the goal of being destroyed does not reduce its biological potential; it still has the potential of developing into a human being if implanted into a uterus.

Therefore, it appears that stem cell therapy research involves an ethical dilemma that requires people to choose between a duty to prevent or alleviate human suffering and the duty to respect the value of human life. When the stem cell research is based on embryonic cells, the two positions cannot be reconciled. "To obtain embryonic stem cells, the early embryo has to be destroyed. This means destroying a potential human life. But embryonic stem cell research could lead to the discovery of new medical treatments that would alleviate the suffering of many people. So which moral principle should have the upper hand in this situation?" ("Embryonic Stem Cell Research," N.p.). Some people suggest that the answer to this question depends on whether human life begins at conception, and frame the issue in much the same way as the modern abortion debate. However, that connection may be a gross oversimplification of the issue.

In fact, the creation of a blastocyst explicitly for the purposes of destroying it for research may be even more morally questionable than the destruction of embryos in other contexts. For people who take a pro-life position, the destruction of an embryo is murder. Therefore, the creation of a blastocyst specifically to end the potential for life that it has would not only be murder, but a premeditated murder that literally harvested human life. There is no view of morality that makes the intentional creation of life, simply to destroy it because of a potential benefit that might bring to other human beings, which makes such a murder acceptable.

Of course, not all embryos used in research would have to be created for that research. Currently, it is not unusual for extra embryos to be created during the process of fertility treatments. When these embryos are unwanted, they are either kept in storage or destroyed. Anne McLaren brings up the possibility that these embryos, which will never develop into a human life, anyway, because they will not be implanted into a person, could be donated for research purposes (N.p.). While using donated embryos may remove the extra layer of immorality that attaches to the creation of life simply to destroy it, it still does nothing to deal with the basic underlying issue, which is that the blastocyst is the foundation of human life. That the human life, in question, would not be implanted into a uterus and given an opportunity for life is an ancillary moral question that brings to bear its own questions about the ethics of modern fertility practices, does nothing to alleviate the moral issues that attach to the use of embryos for stem cell research.

While there is tremendous disagreement about whether a blastocyst or embryo is a human life, there is no disagreement about its potential to develop into human life. At the very least, human embryos are unique in that they are the only collection of cells with the potential to develop into human beings. While it may be impossible to visually distinguish human embryos at various developmental stages from embryos of other animals, the reality is that only human stem cells from embryos have the potential of developing into human beings. What this means is that there will always be ethical issues with the use of embryos for research, even if people dismiss the idea of the blastocyst as a human being. The embryo will always remain unique in its ability to develop into a born human being, and its use in research will always destroy that potential. Those facts cannot be changed by arguing over whether life begins at conception or at some later point in the human development process.

Moreover, it is an ethical problem that is not inherent to stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are not the only type of stem cells that may have significant medical potential. Umbilical cord blood may contain stem cells that can support research without requiring the destruction of a human embryo. Furthermore, adult stem cell research, which uses stem cells taken from the bone marrow, brain tissue, or blood of adult donors, provides significant research opportunities without any associated loss of human life. The use of adult stem cells is not an unsupported theory that has been advanced only by pro-life advocates and is not supported by science. On the contrary, "adult stem cells have been used to treat an estimated 11,000 patients in the United States in the past two years alone, and over 70 diseases, including Parkinson's and diabetes, have been treated using adult stem cells." (Pence, N.p.). With adult stem cells having such expansive treatment potential, the reality is that embryonic stem cell research has been, effectively, rendered obsolete. It may have, at one time, served to advance science, but those advances have made it possible to focus on adult stem cells and have led scientists to the ability to create stem cells from adult skin cells.

These scientific advances have changed the nature of the moral dilemma. No longer are people asked to weigh the potential benefits to human lives that could occur only with the destruction of potential human lives. Instead, given the scientific advances in adult stem cell research, the question must be reframed. Is it morally acceptable to end a possible human life for potential research benefits to human beings, which could be achieved without ending that human life? When viewed in light of the reality of modern science, the question of embryonic stem cell research can no longer be classified as a moral dilemma. Instead, the presence of viable research alternatives that do not require the destruction of the single type of embryonic material that can develop into human beings means that one no longer has to weigh whether an embryo should be valued equally with a born human being. All one has to do is differentiate the embryonic cells from other types of stem cells used research, and then the moral answer becomes clear; even if it once was to people with different views of the beginning of human life, embryonic stem cell research is no longer a morally acceptable choice.

Works Cited

"Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Ethical Dilemma." EuroStemCell. Euro Stem Cell, Mar.

2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.


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