II. Conflicting Views
III. State of the Research
The stem cell debate is high-profile science and front-page news. In 1998 scientists at the University of Wisconsin were able to purify and successfully culture embryonic stem cells that could be used to replace or regrow human tissue. These rare cells, with the ability to differentiate into a variety of other specialized cells in our bodies, evoke both wonder and skepticism as they dominate headlines. On the one hand, they promise new therapeutic opportunities for the treatment of destructive and debilitating diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, the research raises many questions about the ethical responsibilities and limitations of scientific practice.
The discussion surrounding the use of these cells involves scientific, medical, moral, and religious concerns. Political considerations also enter the debate as people turn to policy to define, structure, and regulate the use of embryonic stem cells. In turn, vast attention to the debate captures a wide audience and accelerates passionate rhetoric from all sides. Even Hollywood has jumped into the debate, and spokespersons such as Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeve have fueled media attention. Perhaps the best way to approach the stem cell debate is first to untangle its notoriety.
Among the many contemporary controversies in science and medicine, that regarding stem cells stands out as one of the most discussed and least understood. The research discussion ranges from science and sociology to theology. In all of these arenas, no single consensus has been reached on the use of embryonic stem cells. What exactly is at stake?
All sides in the debate make religious, moral, and ethical claims. Interestingly, in the terminology of the debate, it is immoral to destroy life in any form, and it is simultaneously immoral to deny scientific advancement that could potentially cure deva stating diseases. In this situation, government policy becomes a regulating force.
The body is made up of many different cells. Each cell is programmed for a specific function—for example, to form part of our skin, liver, or blood. Stem cells, however, are unique in that they have the ability to give rise to many different types of cells. A bone cell and a brain cell are not the same, but they originate from differentiated stem cells. Potentially, these cells can be used to grow new tissue. If science can understand how to control these cells, they could be used to replace damaged cells or even grow new organs in a petri dish. Scientific progress is motivated by the possibility of these medical benefits. For example, damaged neurons in Alzheimer’s patients could possibly be replenished by healthy neuron cells produced by using stem cells.
The most effective stem cell for growing tissue is the embryonic stem cell; for this reason, it is at the heart of the controversy. It is not the stem cell itself that is controversial; rather, it is the practice of isolating these cells that fuels debates. Some stem cells are obtained from the tissue of aborted fetuses. Most embryonic stem cells to date, however, are acquired from unused embryos developed from eggs that have been fertilized. In vitro fertilization (IVF) can cause multiple embryos to develop, but only some are actually used to create pregnancy. The leftover embryos are frozen and often remain unused in fertility clinics. Researchers use these “spare” embryos to generate stem cell lines, a process that involves the destruction of the embryo.
The use of embryonic stem cells motivates the most publicly known debate: Should we destroy human embryos for the sake of research? The “moral status” of the stem cell is frequently under discussion. For proponents of embryonic stem cell use, the embryo itself does not constitute a fully formed life because it has not developed in the womb. Furthermore, even if it is defined as life, other advocates see it as a justified means to an end. The use of these embryos could result in more lives saved, which is, overall, considered beneficial. For opponents, the fertilized egg marks the process of conception and therefore the onset of life. Even the embryonic stage is seen as a form of consciousness. Although it might be easy to divide the debate between science and religion—and this is often done—there is actually no consensus and no easy division between those who advocate and those who oppose stem cell research. For example, there are many religious advocates for stem cell research.
The first major government regulation of embryonic stem cell research was announced in 2001. Under federal funding policy, only existing lines of embryonic stem cells can be used for scientific purposes if researchers wish to be eligible for federal funding in the United States. These stem cells must come from unused embryos created under IVF, and the donor must consent to their use. No new lines can be produced, and no new embryos can be used.
Although these are national policies, the question of regulation is an international concern. Ethical debates over the concept of human life take place in multinational venues. In countries such as Great Britain, Japan, Brazil, and Korea there is still much debate over the limitations and regulations of embryonic stem cell research programs. These laws, worldwide, will undergo constant transformation depending on scientific breakthroughs, public acceptance, and political motivations.
These political demands motivate some researchers to find different means of producing stem cells. New practices often create new controversies, however. Adult stem cells may provide an alternative source, although they too have issues of their own. For one, they are difficult to isolate in the body, whereas a large subset of the cells in the embryo are stem cells. Even once they are found, adult stem cells are difficult to control and produce. In addition, many of the adult stem cells generate only particular tissues, usually determined by where the cell originated in the body. Despite these hurdles, scientists continue to make advancements using these cells.
Other research labs are turning to cell nuclear replacement, the same process used in cloning, to produce embryos without fertilization. Through this development, the research labs seemingly bypass the ethical debate of where life begins by creating unfertilized embryos. Because it is aligned with cloning, however, many people have regarded this procedure with uncertainty. Articles in the journal Bioethics suggest that current laws against federal funding of human cloning preclude going down this slippery slope. These articles also acknowledge that public concern may not be so easily assuaged.
There is concern about the value of continuing stem cell research in the midst of these heated debates. What is certain is that researchers are motivated by the hope of producing scientific breakthroughs that could offer advances in the areas of research and medicine. Yet there is also concern over the line between principle and practice. How does research become effective and safe clinical practice? Will it? These questions propose that potential benefits may remain only possibilities. One real issue facing the clinical use of embryonic stem cells is the body’s acceptance of the replacement cells. If the patient’s body does not recognize the cells, the organs produced may be rejected.
There is also growing discussion of the economics behind stem cell use. Certainly the production of stem cell lines, the production of patents for procedures, and the potential profit for accumulating embryos for research all pose ethical questions. Stem cell research is an emerging moneymaking industry. We can see the guiding hand of economic influence when we look to a stem cell–friendly state such as California. Although federal laws maintain certain restrictions, individual regions can use their state funds to promote and recruit scientists for stem cell research. State policies could potentially create a disparity in where active stem cell research takes place. Funding measures in California have made it a hotbed for stem cell research and, in turn, a promising venue for large economic profits. Disparate funding measures across the country raise concern about the real goals of stem cell research, as science and business intersect.
One question of particular concern to bioethicists in the stem cell debate is to whom the benefit will accrue. Many bioethicists believe in the very real possibility of society benefiting from embryonic stem cell research. They still maintain concern about who will have access to these therapies if they are produced, however. Celebrities and influential figures might be able to afford treatment, but there would be many who could not. In this light, stem cell research has the potential of reinforcing existing social divisions or creating new ones. Despite these social concerns, the possible benefits of stem cell use continue to push stem cell research forward.
State of the Research
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in May 2010 received $2.45 million from the New York Stem Cells Science Program of the Empire State Stem Cells Board to create a sophisticated, state-of-the-art lab for basic stem cell research. Growing the cells and learning how to control their differentiation is the goal. Researchers will attempt to guide the stem cell’s development into specialized cell types used by the human body. This is the key scientific challenge of stem cell research today.
For many people, stem cells are the symbol of scientific innovation. They represent cutting-edge research at the frontiers of science. They also represent concern over the limits of science and the ability of science to determine the status of life. Perhaps most eye-opening, however, is the debate’s representation of the intersecting lines of thought within scientific research. The stem cell controversy invites the languages of research, religion, ethics, and politics into one (as yet inconclusive) conversation.
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- Kass, Leon, “Ethical Issues in Stem Cell Research.” In Technology and Values: Essential Readings, ed. C. Hanks. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
- Martialay, Mary, “$2.45 Million Grant To Support Stem Cell Research.” Medical News Today (May 27, 2010). http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/189976.php
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- Waters, Brent, and Ronald Cole-Turner, God and Embryo. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003.