Stem Cell Research

With the advent of a wide variety of scientific advances in the medical field, especially those improvements in health-related fields, the quality of life for the earth’s inhabitants has improved greatly over the past century. Scientists continue to improve upon current knowledge and expand the field of medicine. Over the past few years, scientists have performed significant research pertaining to the study of stem cells. Many researchers see potential in the manipulation of stem cells – possible treatments for currently incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (Goldstein). With these new discoveries, though, questions as to the morality of such practices arise. While few find an ethical problem with the processes involved in adult stem cell research, the destruction of thousands of helpless embryos is wrong and cannot compensate for the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research, namely some saved lives.

There currently exist two primary methods of obtaining stem cells, or generic cells that have the potential to differentiate into more specialized cell types. Most stem cell research is done with embryonic stem cells. When the sperm and the egg combine in the fertilization process, a single zygote cell forms. This cell contains all the same genetic information as every cell in a fully developed human. The only difference is that this zygote has no special function, except to divide multiple times. These other cells that come about as a result of cell division eventually specialize into every type of cell in the body. Because embryonic stem cells have not taken on a specific purpose, they can be manipulated to form the type of cell desired, based on the environments into which they are placed. As a result of this potential to become any type of cell in the human body, embryonic stem cells are the primary targets of research (Jordan 116.2).

Adult stem cells, like embryonic stem cells, have the ability to differentiate into several more specialized cell types, but the potential number of cell types is far smaller than that of an embryonic stem cell. Embryonic stem cells, by nature, eventually turn into every type of cell in the body, whereas adult stem cells will only turn into a few cell types. For example, a blood stem cell, one type of adult stem cell, will eventually turn into one of eight types of specialized blood cells (Jordan 116.3).

Both types of stem cells allow researchers to easily perform a variety of experiments with DNA, mutations, and so forth, without harming any full grown human beings (Jordan 116-1). Since adult stem cells come from a wide variety of tissues in the human body – pancreas, brain, fat, skin, umbilical cord, placenta – they can be successfully harvested without causing any harm to the patient (Weise 78). On the other hand, embryonic stem cells, by definition, come from a four or five day-old developing embryo. Not only does the harvesting of embryonic stem cells without permission from the embryo blatantly violate the Nuremberg Code, which dictates guidelines for scientific research on human beings, but the extraction of such cells results in the destruction of the embryo (Weise 42-43).

Because of the nature of embryonic stem cells – their ability to eventually turn into any type of cell in the body – they are used more frequently than are adult stem cells. While embryonic stem cells may currently appear to be better candidates for research, as scientists study adult stem cells more and more, it appears that they may be as effective as embryonic stem cells. There is no reason to destroy countless helpless embryos when there is an ethical alternative solution (Center for Bioethics).

Every human being who ever comes into existence – whether a simple zygote, a small, newly born baby, a quickly maturing child, or a full grown adult – has a certain set of DNA that defines what that person is or will be like – his personality, physical traits, interests, and so forth. Each zygote, baby, child, and adult has the potential to do great things … to make great contributions to the world. By destroying countless embryos in the name of science, not only do scientists deny those humans the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but in doing so, they deny the rest of the world that which the slaughtered had the potential to offer. While it is true that sacrificing this potential could save other lives, who’s to say that this person sacrificed wouldn’t have discovered an ethical solution to the common diseases that plague today’s world? Who’s to say that the life that will be potentially saved through embryonic stem cell research is worth more than the life that will be destroyed?

The primary argument in support of embryonic stem cell research is the hope that such expected advances provides for those ill with currently terminal diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor in the department of pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego, Lawrence S.B. Goldstein, points out that current solutions to such incurable diseases are not good enough or are non-existent. Current treatments for cancer, if they exist for a particular type of cancer, do not always cure the disease. Organ transplants, if one finally becomes available for any given patient, often result in rejection by the recipient’s body. Goldstein sees potential in embryonic stem cell research to provide cures for such ailments. He even points out the assumption that the embryos destroyed in research are going to be destroyed eventually regardless of whether they are used for scientific exploration (Goldstein). The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity responds to such an absurd argument, writing, “Even if an individual’s death is believed to be otherwise imminent, we still do not have a license to engage in lethal experimentation-just as we may not experiment on death row prisoners or harvest their organs without their consent.”

Another common argument in support of stem cell research is the fabrication that human embryos, in their early states, are not human. The Human Embryo Research Panel and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (in other words, scientists who study embryos) consider the embryo, even at its very earliest stages, a “developing form of human life” (Center for Bioethics). Many attempt to equate the several-cell blastocyst to a human fingernail – just a bunch of useless cells. While both do consist of cells, the fingernail can’t divide a few times and become a full grown person. Still others argue that since the embryo depends on its mother for life, it is not human. Using that reasoning, though, newly born babies, those on life support, and those in a coma are not human. Why not kill all people who can’t live independently of some external life support? Similarly, some argue that since the embryo can’t feel pain or think, it is not human. Paraplegics and some Alzheimer’s patients cannot feel pain; are they any less human than an Olympic track star? (Sullivan)

While the hopes and goals of embryonic stem cell research reveal true care and concern for the people of the world who are plagued with incurable diseases, researchers go too far when they make value judgments on which being’s life is more valuable. The benefits of embryonic stem cell research cannot and will never compensate for the countless embryos – the countless lives – lost in search of discovering such benefits. Thus, it is a necessity that researchers stick to adult stem cell research when aspiring to accomplish their honorable goals.

Works Cited

  • Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. “Embryonic Stem Cell Research is Unethical.” Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center 2003. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group. 18 October 2003.
  • Goldstein, Lawrence S.B. “Human Stem Cell Research is Ethical.” Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center 2003. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group. 18 October 2003.
  • Jordan, Craig T. and Van Zant, Gary. “The Biology of Stem Cells.” The Biomedical Engineering Handbook. 2nd ed. 2000.
  • Sullivan, Andrew. “Early Human Embryos are Human Beings.” Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center 2003. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group. 18 October 2003.
  • Weise, Robert. Playing God – Redesiging Life. Ed. Edward Engelbrecht. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2002.