The possibility of destructive embryonic stem cell research presents us with a complex moral problem that strains two fundamental highly regarded moral principles. On one hand, is the enormous proven potential of the development of novel therapeutic options to eradicate a host of debilitating medical conditions related to diseases; the prevention and alleviation of human suffering. On the other hand, there exists a moral conflict as to whether human embryos should be destroyed to realize the desired therapeutic outcome; the respect of the dignity of human life. This clash of two fundamental and highly regarded ethical principles has created a moral conflict where it becomes extremely difficult to give precedence to one while maintaining simultaneous respect for the other. The question, therefore, arises as to which principle should be given more weight. Should be prohibited stem cell research simply because it threatens and violates the sanctity, dignity, and respect of human life? This paper analyses the positions for and against stem cell research.
Arguments for and Against Stem Cell Research
Potential Therapeutic Value and Embryo Destruction
The discovery, successful isolation, and culturing of stem cell has been hailed as one of the major biomedical breakthroughs in the 21st century. These cells are biologically unique, their ability to infinitely self renew while at the same time maintaining the capacity of differentiation to any form of tissue. Stem cell research holds the key to developing new therapies of regenerative medicine as well as offering treatment to other fatal conditions that had earlier on been incurable. The potential of stem cell research to prevent and alleviate a host of debilitating genetic diseases through somatic gene therapy is a reality that is yet to be untapped.
It, therefore, becomes an irony that the beauty of such a discovery should be overshadowed by the most intractable and trenchant question as to the value, dignity, and respect of life itself. The harvesting of such embryos for research invariably leads to the destruction of such embryos. At this stage, pro stem cell researchers argue that this stage of development can not be comfortably referred to as human, that even though they are genetically human they do not possess the same moral relevance as human beings in society because specific attributes and capacities such as consciousness, sentience, and reasoning do not exist in the realm of the embryo existence.
Moreover, if we were to view embryos as humans then all infertility treatments should be ruled out because they justify the destruction of excess embryos. It, therefore, becomes morally and ethically right to use such extra embryos to benefit humanity. This opinion is vehemently refuted by ethicists who claim that life begins at conception or fertilization and the embryo, therefore, has the right to be called human with dignity and respect just like all other human beings. Some even argue that it becomes utterly immoral for scientists to destroy some defenseless human being for the potential benefit of other human beings. Given that the embryo has not attained a certain degree of personhood does not necessarily imply that they will not do so. Such arguments are supported by the fact that despite all physical differences, the physical growth continuum has no arbitrary point where another significant moral dividing line is established.
The potential of human embryo research in alleviating or preventing human suffering should be viewed as ‘potential benefits. They are only likelihoods of benefits that may accrue if stem cell research was to be fully legalized. In science, particularly when research digresses into uncharted territories, it is sometimes not very easy to predict the outcome with certainty because methodologies are based on a certain kind of probability and a set of hypotheses that may or may not be fulfilled. It is this uncertainty in scientific research that those opposing the legalization of human stem cell research point out. Moreover, this uncertainty should be included in assessing and evaluating the benefits and even the consequences of stem cell research.
The Inevitability of Embryo Wastage
In the normal reproductive cycle, there are millions and millions of excess embryos that could be beneficial in research. Ideally, such embryos are left to progress naturally to destruction. Proponents argue that instead of letting such embryos go into wastage why can’t they be utilized for a beneficial motive since they will be inevitably destroyed whether they are used for research or not through natural processes. It looks very economically insensitive to let the cells expire anyway.
On the other hand, moral philosophers attest that in life there is a definite difference between omissions and acts. They argue that by letting the embryo waste off, we passively fail to intervene to prevent the embryo from reaching its death naturally simply because there exists no alternative for such a kind of intervention. However, by destroying the embryo for research purposes, we are involved in active murder for probable benefits. The moral differences between omission and action mean that the result of the two actions cannot be deemed to be equal. Destruction of surplus embryos from cold storage is with certainty an act. Incidentally, supporters posit that since the result is the same stem cell research simply lengthens the independently occurring causal process. The harm involved and the economic waste are the same whether the embryo is used for research or when it is left to progress naturally to its expiry.
The Creation of Embryos for Stem Cell Research
The viability of embryos is another controversial issue. Proponents argue that stem cell research only utilizes embryos that are morally preferable; those that will not attain growth or development beyond a specific stage, for the alleviation of human suffering. Such an argument rests on the aspect of human choices as opposed to the intrinsic nature of embryos upon which the ethical controversy is based. This leads us to the concept of the creation of embryos for research purposes. While the creation is acceptable for reproductive purposes, the same is not applicable because that creation must progress to the eventual destruction of such an embryo which is impermissible. Moreover, if such avenues were to be legalized then the moral distinction would be eroded very quickly prompting the usage of other spare embryos for reproductive purposes to stem cell research purposes.
Alternatives for Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Adult stem cell research involves removing adult stem cells from the brain, gut, bone marrow, and even in other tissues. Some of their cells possess the capacity to differentiate just like the embryonic stem cells but they are limited in the number of cell types that they can produce. They are essentially multipotent as opposed to pluripotent cells which can differentiate into an infinite number of cell types. This limitation means that they cannot be used in regenerative medicine or even gene therapy. Unless if future research methodologies will be able to induce adult stem cells to differentiate indefinitely, then the prospects of using adult stem cells as alternatives to embryonic stem cells are not feasible.
The harvesting of adult cells for stem cell research purposes circumvents some of the hotly debated ethical concerns because harvesting does not threaten the sanctity, dignity, and respect for human life. Alternatively, the process also does not involve the destruction of embryos. The beauty of adult stem cells lies in the fact that such cells are can be grown into tissues that are immunologically compatible with the donor. This means that they can be transplanted into the donor without any adverse immunological reaction. Likewise, the generation of tissues from embryonic stem cells through the process of tissue engineering may not exhibit any immunocompatibility because the immunological characteristics are set according to the intended recipient. Tissues can also be held in a tissue bank, where recipients’ immune characteristics are matched with the immunological characteristics in the tissue bank to obviate any possibility of immune incompatibility.
Notwithstanding the gravity of the moral and ethical dilemma, an urgent solution is needed to facilitate the development of science for the benefit of society. The debate arguably requires first and foremost the desensitization of the destruction of life should become entrenched into the society, the scientific establishment, independent and government regulatory bodies, and all other stakeholders in the debate. An increase in the degree of tolerance in the loss of life is the only necessary incentive to unlock the beneficial potentiality of stem cell research. Because the opposition of stem cell research is rooted in the slippery slope argument where the potential consequences associated with stem cell research are based on some empirical assumptions, there is a need to assess the causes and effects of such societal attributes and attitudes and their long-term plausibility.
The value of embryos is over-sensitized to an extent that there seems to be a clash between science and region and moral norms and values. While it is fairly uncontroversial to accept embryos as human life, it becomes very difficult to ascertain that indeed they deserve all the rights and liberties that are at the disposal of human beings; of persons.
The nature and plausibility of certain morally laden arguments deserve to be pushed into further scrutiny because human beings have the power to utilize all the knowledge and resources at their behest for the betterment of humanity for the present and even the future generations. The fact that there are a variety of diseases that are incurable, debilitating, and incapacitating is reason enough to use all the resources at our disposal to develop therapeutic interventions for the benefit of society. While arguments rage, people who would have otherwise benefited from the legalization of stem cell embryo research are dying while there are no real tangible benefits to the embryo or the society as a whole.
Nickel, J. Philip. Ethical Issues in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. In: Fundamentals of the Stem Cell Debate: Religious, Ethical, and Political Issues by Kristen R. Monroe, Ronald Baker Miller, Jerome S. Tobis. University of California Press, 2008. p. 62-78