This is one of the most controversial questions posed in the last century. The issue is simple. Should the federal government fund embryo stem cell research? The answer is extremely complex. At the heart of this controversy, is whether or not, it is morally ethical to use stem cells derived from human embryos to possibly discover the cure and treatment for many diseases such as Diabetes, Stroke, Cancer, Parkinsons disease, and Alzheimers, to name just a few.
The discovery of human pluripotent stem cells, the most basic building blocks of the human body, is a major scientific breakthrough, the full value of which cannot be overstated, said Nobel Laureate Paul Berg, Ph. D. , in a recent press release on behalf of the American Society for Cell Biology (2). Since they were first isolated in 1998, stem cells have shown the potential to dramatically change medical research and therapies (2). Embryonic stem cells are the very early cells that still have the potential to evolve into any type of tissue or organ.
In the laboratory they can be coaxed into becoming brain cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, blood cells, etc. , according to Christine Morris in an article written for the Miami Herald, researchers are working on the way to make the cells grow into the type of cell they need, then infuse them into diseased organs to fix a problem (1). Two of the worlds most important ethical commitments are placed at odds with the discovery of stem cells; the commitment to protect human life, and the commitment to curing diseases.
The opposition to this research comes from Anti-abortion groups, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and seventy U. S. Congressmen among others. Their position is that it is wrong to permit research that requires the destruction of human embryos to obtain their stem cells. The crux of their beliefs is human life begins at conception. To them, this research is on the same level as the experiments that were perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II.
A press release from Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics says, this research requires the deliberate destruction of human beings in order to obtain the raw materials for research (1). They assert the research is not only ethically and morally wrong, but it is illegal as well. The current congressional ban on federally funded research prohibits research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death (1).
The destruction of the live embryos is necessary to obtain the stem cells. The Coalition believes the government is side stepping this ban by saying it will fund the research on stem cells, but it will not fund the destruction of the embryos (1). Seemingly, the way to resolve the issue for the government is by making a distinction between doing the research, and the source of materials to accomplish this research. John Hopkins researchers use a technique to extract stem cells from aborted fetuses.
This technique is slightly less controversial because the fetuss fate is not affected by the extraction of the stem cells. Of course, this does not take into account the abortion issue. Using already- dead fetuses has been compared to obtaining donor tissue from cadavers. John Hopkins research will probably qualify for federal funding, because the wording in the present ban does not include dead fetuses (Bettelheim 1070). The University of Wisconsin researchers use embryos, which have been stored in liquid nitrogen. The embryos are left over from fertility clinics, and are discarded.
These embryos are usually ones that are determined to be unsuitable for transplantation into the mothers womb. There are approximately 16,000 embryos created every year. However, their use is banned by the congressional funding ban, because the fetuses are destroyed to obtain the stem cells. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission has advised President Clinton that they believe both techniques should be used. They feel that the ethical goal of medicine to heal, prevent disease, and do research would be compromised otherwise (1071).
The support for stem cell research comes from Patients Coalition for Urgent Research, National Institutes of Health, National Bioethics Advisory Commission, President Clinton, American Medical Association, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Steve Reeves Foundation, and many more. Steve Reeves testified before the National Institute of Health hearings. He asked if women thought it was more ethical for women to donate their unused embryos, or let them be thrown out as garbage. He said they could be used to save many lives.
He presented a letter in support of his testimony that had been signed by four theologians; a Catholic, a Protestant, an Islamic and a Jew all supporting stem cell research. He also presented a letter signed by 100 medical research groups, patient advocate groups, and academic organizations (National Institute of Health Stem Cell Issue Hearings 4). I chose this topic for several reasons. I have always been interested in Science. I find the advances that have been achieved in recent years fascinating. It appears to me that the human race is on the verge of an evolutionary period of development.
Humankind could be rid of most diseases, which could possibly launch us into a completely new way to live and look at life. The leap in knowledge does not seem to be limited to medical discoveries alone. We have learned more about our universe and the origins of life in the last decade, than all the past discoveries combined. Much of the knowledge of the human body, and how it is developed, has come from the research done in the area of cell research. We are just now beginning to scratch the surface of how the human brain works.
Without further research at the cellular level, I do not believe we will ever truly understand the workings of the brain. Another reason I chose this topic is for a far less altruistic reason, I have a profound fear of developing Alzheimers disease. Both of my parents contracted Alzheimers, which does not give me much hope for my future. If there is even the slightest possibility of a cure, I want to be informed of any new developments. The specter of a disease that robs people of all dignity is a definite motivator to be an advocate for research in this area.
I also have profound empathy for all the other people suffering from the myriad of diseases that either takes lives prematurely, leaves people paralyzed, or in excruciating pain. The quality of life is just not there for people suffering from horrible debilitating diseases. I grew up in an era when women did not have the right to choose. One of my friends died from an illegal abortion. She was fifteen years old. Many of the people that want to take that right away from women were never exposed to the consequences of the coat hanger abortions.
I am sure my background affects my views, because the people that are against stem cell research are the same people that want to take away a womans right to choose. I have been affected by their beliefs that they can regulate how everyone else should believe. I do not feel they have the right to take away the possibility of a cure for so many horrible diseases. I do not agree with the Right to Life groups that are against stem cell research. I do not believe life begins at conception. I feel there has to be a point when a fetus receives a soul, however, I do not think a blastocyst is a human being with as much right to life as a person.
This aspect of the issue is one that needs to be investigated further. Another issue that is raised with this topic is the possibility for abuse where genetic tinkering is concerned. Human cloning is not just a science fiction fantasy. The possibility is very real. There are many views and issues I was not able to cover in this paper. In my second paper, I plan to go into detail regarding the issue of when a fetus is considered a person. I will give more documentation and statistics from both sides of the issue.