Stem Cells the Ethical Controversy Research Paper

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Stem Cells


Since human stem cells were cultivated in a laboratory for the first time in 1998 (Saunders 2001), they have represented one of the most important avenues of medical research. Some types of human stem cells have a virtually unlimited range of possible applications with tremendous potential human health and quality-of-life benefits.

Nevertheless, stem cell research provokes significant opposition on philosophical grounds that, since 2001, have severely hampered the natural pace of scientific development in the United States in a way that violates objective ethical standards as well as the separation of church and state, a fundamental constitutional principle on the minds of the Framers of the Constitution.

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The primary source of philosophical opposition to stem cell research is the Catholic Church and arises in connection with two specific Christian beliefs: (1) that human life is fundamentally different in kind from animal life because, according to the Bible, God created man "in his image," and (2) human belief begins at the moment of conception. The argument that the U.S. Constitution prohibits this type of "entanglement" (Dershowitz 2005) of religion and secular law is quite strong, notwithstanding the fact that a slightly more conservative makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court could, conceivably, even reverse Roe v Wade eventually.

Background and History of the Issue:

Research Paper on Stem Cells the Ethical Controversy Over Stem Assignment

In principle, the value of human stem cells is their ability to develop into any type human tissue; they can be directed to produce bone cells or into the specific types of tissues comprising various human organs. Undoubtedly, the road between the concept and the design and implementation of stem cell technology is a challenging one, but so far, the hopes first expressed a decade ago have only been continually confirmed at every stage of research into stem cell-related therapies.

Still, in 2001, the opponents of the most valuable medical breakthrough since antibiotics (Pollack 2007) succeeded in achieving a ban on federal funding of any medical research using fetal stem cells, effectively blocking the entire field from developing its potential medical benefits into real-world applications to treat myriad debilitating human diseases. Technically, this type of stem cell research is permissible, but only using the few dozen remaining stem cell lines created before 2001, many of which are no longer useful because of their age (Pollack 2007).

The most valuable stem cell research permitted by law are entirely excluded from federal funding eligibility, limiting them strictly to privately funded efforts. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of large-scale medical research is conducted by universities and funded by federal research grants. Therefore, the federal funding ban signed into law by President George Bush in 2001 undermines medical progress almost as much as outright prohibition of research in the field.

The Ethical Controversy: Human stem cells are, essentially, tissues that have not yet been programmed by the influence of hormones to develop into a specific type of human tissue, much the way wet concrete is shapeless until cast into a desired form. The implications of this realization is that stem cells can be extracted, cultivated, and deliberately programmed to grow into any human tissue type necessary to treat disease. Some of the most obvious potential benefits is the use of stem cells to furnish replacement organs, such as kidneys, hearts, and lungs. Presently, thousands of patients die every year in the U.S. because their own organs fail before a suitable donor organ becomes available to them (Zuckerman 2005). Even aside from the shortage of donor organs, replacement organs grown from the patient's own stem cells never raise the risk of rejection; therefore, they do not require recipients to suffer the long-term effects of anti-rejection drugs that shut off the immune system to protect the transplanted organ (Krbling, et al. 2002). Stem cells also can provide unlimited quantities of human skin to treat burns, as well as mechanisms for restoring the nervous system functions of patients paralyzed by traumatic spinal injuries. The Baby Boom of the 1960s now shifts the average age of Americans upward every year as they reach retirement age, just as Alzheimer's disease gains recognition as a widespread consequence of old age. Stem cells offer a way of preventing and treating Alzheimer's, as well as many other medical conditions that are the source of so much human suffering: cancer, cystic diabetes, fibrosis, Huntington's, and Parkinson's disease, among so many others that the list is exhaustive.

The main opposition to stem cell research is that destroying a human embryo is tantamount to murder, because the human soul, and therefore human life itself, begins at the instant of fertilization. For this reason, the current federal rules limit stem cell research to the forms of human stem cells that hold the least potential while banning the research into the very types with the greatest potential. That is because stem cells extracted from adult bone marrow, for one example, have significantly less potential in terms of their variability into developing into certain specific tissues, whereas fetal stem cells are virtually unlimited in this regard (Healy 2004).

The conflict is crystallized by the respective positions on the matter of obtaining fetal stem cells, precisely because they are abundantly available in the form of extra fertilized human zygotes created in conjunction with in-vitro fertilization (IVF) processes. Because ovum extraction and sperm implantation requires complicated procedures that must often be repeated several (if not many more) times to achieve pregnancy, standard IVF protocols involve creating a dozen or more viable zygotes rather than one at a time. Almost invariably, by the time IVF pregnancy is achieved, at least some of the extra fertilized eggs are left over (Sagan & Druyen 2002).

Under federal law, this tissue may be preserved indefinitely or destroyed in the manner approved for medical waste; but it may not be used to supply desperately needed fetal stem cells for use in stem cell-related medical research. Likewise, legally aborted fetuses are absolutely excluded by law from any use as a source of fetal stem cells despite the fact that they represent a rich natural resource. Instead of harvesting stem cells capable of benefiting millions through research, tissues produced by terminated pregnancies (including umbilical cords and placental tissues) must be discarded as medical waste.

Discussion of the Ethical Issues:

In fact, the contemporary religious objections to stem cell research is no different from the medieval Catholic Church's prohibition against the study of anatomy that required aspiring scientists of the time to study in secret under threat of imprisonment or torture as "heretics." Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the entanglement of religious beliefs and law, under both the separation of powers doctrine as well as the concept of equal protection (Dershowitz 2002).

Legislation that promotes or defines moral obligations in terms of any religious perspective is violative of the separation of powers element of the Constitution; legislation that does so in adhering to any specific religious philosophy undermines the equal protection rights of the members of every other religious group and of those beholden to none. The fundamental problem is that the beliefs that human life is created in the "image" of any God and that human life begins at conception are both purely religious points-of-view. As such, both are perfectly acceptable rules within the context of religious traditions; conversely, neither is appropriate for inclusion into secular law in the United States.

Admittedly, scientists cannot pinpoint with precise accuracy the exact period of gestational development where human life can be said to begin, except to say that it certainly occurs somewhere between the initial cellular division stage and later developmental stages of fetal growth. However, scientists can identify various anatomical structures, (such as a brain and nervous system) that are prerequisites to any scientific definition of "life" that differs qualitatively from the "life" associated with any living human tissue such as skin cells and donor organs that must remain alive to be useful medically (Sagan & Druyen 2002).

This religious-based refusal to allow the beneficial use of so many available sources of valuable human fetal cells already produced in IVF facilities and those associated with legal abortions is a travesty of objective morality and U.S. constitutional principles, notwithstanding several very recent discoveries that adult stem cells can also be coaxed into much greater variability for use than previously thought. In 2007, two different groups of researchers managed to develop different techniques to do so, but even if those approaches are ultimately successful, the progress of medical science in this crucial area has been severely compromised and set back for almost a decade by virtue of the politicalization of the issue of stem cell research (Kinsley 2007).

Even if the use of adult stem cells eventually replaces the need for fetal tissue cells entirely, it has been at the expense of all the patients who died unnecessarily in the interim, whether because they never received a donor organ or because they succumbed to the progression of other illnesses like diabetes or cystic fibrosis in the meantime.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Stem Cells the Ethical Controversy.  (2008, July 24).  Retrieved May 26, 2020, from

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"Stem Cells the Ethical Controversy."  July 24, 2008.  Accessed May 26, 2020.