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The Controversy of Stem Cell Research

Essay by   •  May 22, 2011  •  Case Study  •  3,462 Words (14 Pages)  •  1,641 Views

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It is no secret that within the past decade, the ethical issues that have arisen from stem cell research have been generating debate in science and in politics. I believe that stem cell research holds so many hopes and possibilities of curing disease that it would be immoral to consider bringing an end to stem cell research. Stem cell research encompasses so many different aspects, so I will focus mainly on the embryonic stem cell research. Issues such as the use of adult stem cells, whether stem cell research is necessary or therapeutic cloning will not be covered. To begin with, it is imperative to establish what stem cells are. Also, it is vital to discuss what makes stem cell research so controversial. Once these have been established, we will review why it is immoral to destroy embryos in order to acquire stem cells. To follow this up, we will consider why it is not immoral to destroy embryos in order to obtain stem cells. Next, I will overview the political philosophy behind stem cell research. The next pressing issue that I will cover is the metaphysics behind stem cell research. Lastly, I will state my opinion on whether or not I believe stem cell research should continue.

To understand why there is such an intricate controversy surrounding stem cell research, it is first important to establish what stem cells are, and how they are different from regular body cells. Stem cells have the ability to grow into one of the body's more than 200 different types of cells which is due to the fact that all stem cells are unspecialized2. To illustrate just how incredible this is, scientist Christopher Thomas remarks: "Every passing hour represents a turning point for a stem cell, and the trajectory of change is overwhelmingly in one direction: cells are destined to become specialists in a fully functioning organism."3 Another remarkable trait of stem cells is their ability to create new cells of the tissues they belong to and even of tissues that they do not belong to. For example, stem cells from bone marrow can also generate non-marrow cells4. There are two different kinds of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. As the name suggests, embryonic stem cells come from the embryo. For the embryonic stem cell to be created, an egg has to be fertilized. Once the two cells blend to create a single cell it becomes known as a zygote, which is the earliest form of an embryo.5 It is at this point which an embryo has the ability to become any cell in the human body. "A fertilized egg is the ultimate stem cell, as it is the course of every type of cell in the human body, from oxygen-carrying red blood cells to electricity-conducting nerve cells and throbbing heart muscle cells."6 Adult stems cells are the product of matured embryonic stem cells. Although adult stem cells have the ability to become many different types of cells, they are not totipotent like embryonic stem cells, they are multipotent. Some kinds of adult stem cells are limited to only producing a specialized cell whereas some adult stem cells can make several types of cells7. Of the two types of stem cells; embryonic stem cells are without a doubt the more promising to finding cures for diseases.

Now that is has been made clear what stem cells are, one must ask the question: What makes stem cell research so controversial? To start, it is always important to remember that nearly every advance in science is met with hesitation in some form. Christopher Thomas Scott believes that people who oppose stem cell research are prone to do so because they fear any kind of biomedical science intrudes into the natural world8. This is more than likely one of the most dominant factor in determining whether someone is in favour of or against stem cell research: their ability to accept new and foreign ideas. Additionally, there are some risks that are associated with stem cell research. One of the major risks that accompanies embryonic stem cells is the possibility of someone's immune system recognizing the cells as foreign and destroying them9. Even more frightening is the possibility of teratomas. Teratomas are also known as "monster tumours" and they can contain pieces of teeth, muscle, bones, hair and even primitive pieces of an eye10. These tumours are benign, but if they grow too large they can be deadly with 70 to 100 percent of experimental animals having died from teratomas11. Nevertheless, it is very commonly accepted that with every new treatment, drug or procedure, there is a certain element of risk involved and stem cells certainly will not be an exception. Furthermore, the most commonly made argument by those who do not support embryonic stem cell research is that embryos are equal to people and have a right to live. People who argue this state that embryos are in fact a form of life that can potentially develop into children12. Many people then wonder why these embryos should be discarded so offhandedly when every person on the world today once started out as an embryo. Scientists do acknowledge this, but state that the "...potential is not the same as the actual."13 Seeing all these different viewpoints, it is clear to see that there are many reasons why stem cell research has seen so much resistance and controversy.

Since all humans started out as embryos, it is clearly evident that destroying embryos in order to obtain stem cells is immoral and unethical. To start, we cannot simply say that embryos are clumps of cells. Many people can agree on the fact that every human life has value and worth and scientists performing stem cell research do not have a right to claim that embryos are not living. Clinical neurologist, William Cheshire, understands that every human life has intrinsic worth and that "A mere three pounds of tissue demonstrates remarkable skills for learning...and the human organism is not just a chemical machine, but is a being whose essential nature is in part mysterious."14 In addition, even though some bioethicists acknowledge moral relevance only in beings who meet a specified threshold of cognitive function, moral relevance should be granted to beings who have "...the capacity for assembling within itself a structure as wondrous as the human brain."15 Human embryos will have the same ability as you or I to one day laugh and cry, if they are only granted the chance to exist beyond being a zygote. Accordingly, humans embryos should really only be created for means of procreation16. To finish, if scientists depend upon abolishing human embryos to find cures it will lead to an unwelcomed paradigm shift in the conduct of biomedical science and bioethics. The Hippocratic ethic which states, "First, do no harm" is the one statement that millions have depended upon and honoured in the field of bioethics for years. Are we now to abandon this because of an anticipation

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