Friday, 7 December 2012

Stem Cell Research: Life-Saving or Cold-Blooded Murder?

by Sparshita Dey

^Embryonic stem cells
Stem cell research may be the next scientific breakthrough. Scientists think that if we can discover how specialised cells turn off/on certain genes to give them particular functions and characteristics, we can start "growing" specific cells using stem cells from a person's body. These can be used to cure genetic diseases (which cannot be cured at the moment and can result in a lifetime of pain and discomfort, including early deaths) as well as other diseases that are not yet curable e.g. diabetes and paralysis. So surely using stem cells should get the go-ahead straight away? Then why do so many people oppose it? 

What is Stem Cell Research and what are Stem Cells?

Stem cell research is to do with the research of undifferentiated cells (i.e. cells with the ability to differentiate/specialise into any type of cell with any type of function in the body depending on where it is needed/ used). In plants, specialised cells can become unspecialised again (like stem cells) and then re-differentiate if needed. However, in animals, like humans, the stem cells differentiate very early on in the development of the organism (from just after a zygote is formed – i.e. in the embryonic stage) and this change is permanent.

Theory behind the importance of Stem Cell research. The advantages, if you like: 

^Religious opposition is quite common 
Many people believe that stem cells could be able to help people in curing things like Alzheimer’s disease and helping cure paralysed people. Stem cells from their body could be used to create new organs or cells to help “fix” or replace the problematic ones in the person’s body to cure them. For example, to aid a paralysed person, new nerve cells could be grown from their own stem cells and then used to reconnect the nerves in their bodies. This means that the genetic information will be exactly the same and the person will not face problems like their body’s immune system rejecting the transplanted organ if it is from someone else’ who isn't genetically related/identical to the person.

Types of Stem Cells

The two main types of stem cells are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the main focus of stem cell research. These are the cells found in the inner embryo, just after fertilisation, when the cells have not differentiated to form the various cells and organs of a new baby. Adult stem cells can be found in the bone marrow. These stem cells are not so much the focus of stem cell research as embryonic stem cells are much “newer” and are therefore capable of differentiating into a greater variety of cell types with a greater variety of functions.

Statistic Verification
Source: Charlton Research Company
Date Verified: 6.20.2012

Stem Cell Research Public Opinion
Do you favour or oppose expanding federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells?
Strongly favour
39 %
Somewhat favour
34 %
Somewhat oppose
12 %
Strongly oppose
15 %
Do you favour or oppose expanding federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells?
73 %
27 %
Would you favour or oppose a law that bans using embryonic stem cells to clone a human being but allows them to be used for the pursuit of cures for diabetes, paralysis, Parkinson’s and other diseases?
67 %
33 %
Of those opposed: Would you say your opposition to embryonic stem cell research is based on religious objections, or is your opposition based on other grounds?
Religious objections
57 %
Other grounds
39 %
Not sure
4 %
Reproductive cloning is the use of cloning technology to create a child. Do you think research into reproductive cloning should be allowed to go forward?
30 %
70 %
 ^This secondary source shows that most people do not object against stem cell research, but of those who do, the majority oppose due to religious reasons

The possible ethical issues with stem cell research:

The main issue that people have with stem cell research is following the thought process that each embryo is a potential life. It is true that the embryo, which is just a ball of cells could make a new person and even though research using these tiny ball of cells could save many people in the future, some people believe that it is wrong to take one life to save another. This problem or view is supported by religions as it is believed by most religions, like in Judaism and Christianity, that taking a life (even though it is only a potential life, not an existing life yet) is wrong, because it is “precious to God”. This explains how a large proportion of the people in the sample above who opposed stem cell research had reasons that were mostly religious oppositions. Apart from this however, there doesn't seem to be any other big issue with stem cell research… but perceptions of whether an early embryo can count as a human being (with human rights) is very controversial as well.

^There are lots of ethical issues with stem cell research 
Personal views - Whether there is anything unethical about Stem Cell Research: 

Finally, in order to decide whether stem cell research using embryonic stem cells is right or wrong, it very much depends on individual views on the value of an embryo. I personally think that although embryos are a potential life and following that mind-set, research which could lead to the destruction of these “lives” sounds a lot like murder, we must also judge and relate to what we mean by a living being or thing. If we say that living is defined as an object that is able to reproduce and grow, then an embryo would be living (cells of the embryo reproduce asexually, the embryo itself does not!). But often that is not all we mean when we talk about humans in particular. 

If we were to call an embryo a human, it would be expected to breathe, communicate, have emotions or a nervous system to start with; but the embryo is none of these things, it is just a cluster of cells capable of just reproducing and thus growing, and then differentiating into something else over a longer period of time. Therefore, it is not a human yet and so human rights do not apply as it cannot even make judgements for itself. 

Using this logic, you can argue that this is still not a very good reason to destroy or experiment with a non-living ball of cells which could one day become a human being. And again, this is a very valid point. However, most of the time the embryos being used are from abortion or unused IVF treatment (in vitro fertilisation - when fertilisation occurs outside of the woman's body and in laboratory controlled conditions before being implanted back into the mother). This means that they would be destroyed anyway if they weren't used for stem cell research. Isn't it better to use the embryos for research than to waste them by destroying them if they could be of better use for something else? Also, if using these embryos which would have been otherwise destroyed is unethical, then is every sperm and egg cell (a potential life) being killed unethical too? 

For these reasons, I think that at the moment, stem cell research is justified and not like some cases like animal testing where the ethical issues are as significant as or perhaps even more of a concern than the benefits from animal testing. I do not think that there is any problem at the moment with the research continuing and although at a glance at the situation, it could seem like the destruction of potential lives, looking into the situation and the types of embryos used makes it seem less so. I also do not think that embryonic stem cell research can be judged as a negative development even in the future. Unless, of course, the embryos are taken from parents who wanted the embryo, or not given to those who want children but can’t have any of their own – in which case these unwanted or spare embryos are much more valuable as they actually have a way of becoming a new human being.

What do you think? Do you agree with this point of view or do you think that stem cell research is unjustified? 

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