Controversial Biological Issues Term Paper

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Controversial Bioethical Issues of the Modern Era

Often, the pace of human scientific progress proceeds faster than the ability of medical ethicists to rationally cope with scientific developments. This can be seen when analyzing four bioethical issues that have gripped the nation's headlines over the past ten years, including the controversy over stem cell research, the debate over cloning human embryos, questions surrounding surrogate motherhood and the issue of animal experimentation. All of these issues test the limits, not only of the current scope of scientific research knowledge, but challenge fundamental ethical assumptions of when human life begins, what constitutes a parent, and also what constitutes a valuable life at all. While issues of controversy are often framed in 'rights based' or legal terms, medical science must provide some answers as to how to ethically cope with these issues just as lawyers wrestle with issues of civil rights.

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The recent death of actor Christopher Reeve brought the issue of stem cell research to the forefront of the national consciousness. Reeve suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury as the result of a horseback riding accident. He hoped that advances in stem cell research would ensure that one day he would be able to walk again. But stem cell research is controversial because the best source of stem cells is human fetal tissue, often obtained by abortions. Harvesting the stem cells requires the destruction of an embryo, which many ethicists see as morally undifferentiated from the destruction of a human being. Not surprisingly, many anti-stem cell advocates are also opposed to the legal right of a woman to obtain an abortion. But even some anti-abortion activists such as Nancy Reagan believe that, while abortions are allowed to take place in the nation, one might as well use the stem cells obtained from the procedure to do some medical good and further medical knowledge in the fight against Alzheimer's Disease, from which Reagan's husband suffered and died from. (Macdonald, 2005)

To anti-abortion radicals, however, this sounds like justifying using the knowledge gleaned from Nazi genocide experiments performed in concentration camps. Many who support a woman's report to choice, however, argue that embryos and the cells obtained from them are merely primitive cells with the ability both to multiply and to differentiate into specific kinds of cells. They also point out that stem cells hold the promise of allowing researchers to grow specialized cells or tissue, which could be used to treat injuries or disease and better the future of living, as opposed to potential humankind. (Macdonald, 2005)

Stem cells can also be obtained from embryos created by IVF (in-vitro fertilization) for reproductive purposes when the embryos are no longer wanted for infertility treatment, the embryos created by IVF specifically for research purposes instead of reproduction, and embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) for research purposes, not for reproduction. (Bayliss 2004) But even if one disagrees with all of these derivations of the source of he embryos the analogy with Mengel's experiments in Auschwitz does not ethically 'hold up.' Even if one finds all of these practices abhorrent -- the potential for using stem cells in research will not encourage a woman to seek an abortion, nor a couple to embark upon IVF. Given that the source has no interest in the result of the experiments, it seems wasteful to discard the potentially helpful and unique genetic resource of the embryos. Perhaps the only, most unethical aspect of the debate is that the claims for the potential of stem cell research might be slightly overstated regarding some diseases, because of the fervor of scientists and sufferers from disease to ensure the research continues.

Cloning Human Embryos

The fact that stem cell research may employ embryos used in human cloning experiments opens up another ethical issue as to the question of cloning humans. On February 12, 2004, Professor Woo Suk Hwang of South Korea and his colleagues created embryos that were the exact genetic copies of the women who donated the eggs and cells to make them. They produced 30 embryo clones designed for the purposes of human gene therapy. The eventual aim is to use such cells to replace those that have failed in patients with degenerative diseases, such as some heart conditions and Parkinson's, or in spinal cord injuries. The procedure is known as therapeutic as opposed to reproductive cloning. The Korean researchers stated that they saw their research as very different from reproductive cloning, attempting to bring about the birth of a cloned baby, because they were attempting to help living human beings suffering from illnesses. (BBC, 2004)

But other advocates argue that such therapeutic cloning technology could be used to recreate human beings. Even if the users of reproductive cloning proceeded with good intentions, such as the bereaved parents of a child who wished to clone the baby they lost, scientists could find themselves in the role of tampering with the evolution of the gene pool. Also, regarding the laboratory procedures of cloning, there is also the general complaint often reiterated in regards to stem cell research, that embryo research is tampering with cells which have the potential to be human beings. Arthur Kaplan, medical ethicist and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. Kaplan said splitting the debate into two issues, cloning for making babies and cloning for research purposes, would help in making sensible policy. (CNN.com, 2004)

Can the issue be split so easily? True, the "Korean experiments were given approval by an ethical review board and all the women who donated cells and eggs gave informed consent," acknowledging the potential dangers of this technology. Still, "this will mean nothing to those who are uncomfortable with this kind of science, who fear this latest work bring a the reality of a cloned baby closer. The Korean research shows some of these technical hurdles can be overcome and those minded to produce cloned babies could attempt to use the new information to make children. Despite the fact that scientists have been struggling to clone monkeys and it is clear there are particular difficulties involved in making genetic copies of primates, it is unclear if ethical review boards that approved the Korean experiment will be able to be vigilant enough to guard against the uses of technology to create cloned human beings, as well as to regenerate the cells of already existing humans. (BBC, 2004)

Surrogate Motherhood

Cloning a child or a copy of one's self, whom one gives birth to fundamentally questions who and what is a parent -- but this controversy was first opened long ago, with the event of surrogate motherhood. A surrogate mother is a woman who carries a child, usually for an infertile couple. "The traditional type of surrogacy involves the surrogate mother being (AI) artificially inseminated with the sperm of the intended father or sperm from a donor when the sperm count is low. In either case the surrogate's own egg will be used. Genetically the surrogate becomes the mother of the resulting child." (Storey, 2000) However, some surrogates also have the egg of the couple implanted within them, when the mother is still fertile. Either way, there are moral considerations such as the feelings of a surrogate that the practice arouses and cannot always easily answer. Also, how does the husband or wife feel about a third party being involved in the conception of their child? Is their privacy being invoked? When, if ever, will the recipient parent tell the child about the manner of his or her conception? (Bird, 1999)

Again, surrogacy also raises issues regarding stem cell research, as frequently IV fertilization is used to implant eggs within the mother's womb, and embryos may be produced in excess to do so. But even in the most distanced surrogate relationship, with no genetic connection between the carrying surrogate mother and child, this does not mean the mother's feelings can be legislated and stipulated in the contract that must be drawn up between the parties -- despite the comforts of becoming parents, the difficulties of the relationship seem to promote more social harms than goods, and potentially put the child produced from the union at psychological risk

Animal Experimentation

However, of all of these bioethical controversies, none of them is as old nor strikes as vitally at the question of what has the right to live and die, as the controversy of using animal life to prolong the life of humans. People have experimented with animals for hundreds of years, but the practice did not become widespread until the late 1800's. While animal experimentation has produced considerable benefits to people, it often results in the suffering and death of animals. (Rowan, 2005) Often, scientists justify experimentation because animals lack certain attributes compared to humans, such as intelligence, family structure, social bonding, communication skills, and altruism. "However, numerous nonhuman animals -- among them rats, pigs, dogs, monkeys, and great apes -- reason and/or display altruism. There is accumulating… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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