isolate one issue that could be called the most controversial issue of the last decade, then it would have to be stem cell research. Federal funding for stem cell research has come under serious criticism on ethical grounds. Stem cell research has been the most explosive genetic research subject in recent years. It has occupied political, legal, ethical and social debates without any specific resolution to the question if stem cell research is ethical and if yes how and if no, why. The debate is grounded in the source of cells required for the research. Stem cells are obtained from two or three different sources like the umbilical cord and the very early stage embryo but the main contentious source is the early embryo which is rich in stem cells but has not yet turned into a person because at this stage it is simply a cyst called blastocyst. We must understand that the reason stem cell research has attracted such massive attention from all quarters is because of serious and rather explosive questions that it gives rise including the sources of stem cell and the issue of personal consent. The main bone of contention is the source. Many people believe that use of early embryos is equivalent to abortion or killing a person. They equate the blastocyst with a full human being and believe that the same dignity much be granted to the embryo that a full human being deserves. The second cause of contention is the consent issue. A person has a right to decide something for himself but in this case, an embryo has no chance to give his consent for the research and has a person is deprived of the right to life and the right to self-determination and autonomy.
Stem cells are a very critical group of cells in a human body. They had been first identified in animals in 1981 and since then animals were the only source of stem cell research. However in 1998 two scientists in the U.S. announced successful separation of stem cells from other cells in the body and this led to the question of its potential in research and medical progress. It was found that stem cells could be used for variety of medical purposes such as identification of genetic disorders and development of appropriate treatment. They may also have the ability to treat such complex conditions as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
HISTORY OF STEM CELL RESEARCH
Stem cell research was essentially limited animal embryos till 1998 when a group of scientists from University of Wisconsin were successfully able to identify and separate stem cells in human embryos. While a big breakthrough, this resulted in high controversial debate over the subject of what’s more important: life that could be or improvement of life that is already there?
In other words, people argued that destruction of human embryos for stem cell research purposes was fundamentally unethical in nature since it was considered equivalent to murder. However the proponents of research believed that it was more important to give hope of a healthy life to a human being that had already come to this world.
Sources of Stem cells
Here we need to make a distinction between what is a fetus as opposed to a baby in the womb. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) a fetus is “the product of conception from the time of implantation” (45 C.F.R. § 46.203). As opposed to this, scientists use the term embryo for a fertilized egg that has been implanted for eight weeks. After eight weeks till birth, the embryos is called fetus by the physicians even though most people would start calling it a baby as soon as they start feeling the movement.
This distinction helps us understand where the stem cells come from. Scientists are not using mature or advanced stage fetuses to derive stem cells; they are only limiting it to very young embryos that have resulted from IVF procedure.
This is an interesting part of stem cell research. The sources may have broadened today but when stem cell research on human beings began, only the embryos developed during infertility treatments were used for this purpose. It was found that IVF procedures were resulting in the development of more than one embryo, which was usually stored for future use by the couples. Since these embryos are healthy and when implanted could lead to the birth of a healthy human being, the use of these embryos for stem cell research was considered highly controversial and led to serious ethical questions.
While the group of scientists at university of Wisconsin used IVF-resulted embryos for research, the group at John Hopkins University used embryos that were given to them after elective abortion procedures. But both groups claimed they had received embryos through informed consent. However since they could have led to the birth of a health human being, the controversial aspect of stem cell research couldn’t be resolved and a large section of society vehemently opposed any funding for this research.
Funding for Stem cell research
Bush administration generated public uproar when in August 2001 it announced support for stem cell research funding but restricted it to existing lines of stem cells. According to sources, at that time, there were 78 existing lines of stem cell and in 2005, scientists decided to explore other ways of retrieving stem cells without destroying embryos. “The President’s council on bioethics, 1” The council discovered four alternative methods that could help in collecting stem cells but required additional research. However the research did not actually take place as concern was expressed by some quarters that such a research would be a “diversion from the simple task at hand which is to move forward with the established laboratory techniques … For studying embryonic stem cell research and biomedical cloning” and that the four proposals would “use financial resources that would be better devoted to proposals that are likely to be more productive.” 2
Bush administration’s decision was believed as a major step in the right direction for stem cell research but the limitation to “existing stem cell lines where the life and death decision has already been made”33 stemmed the growth of research on alternative sources. President Bush argued that this decision was taken to allow “us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.”
Expected Applications of Stem Cell Research
While the issue may have developed into a problematic concept, the stem cell research itself has immense potential for the study and treatment of genetic diseases and disorders including some degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These stem cells are being studied to see how they can help in replacement of defective tissues in certain genetic and degenerative diseases. A large number of people are directly or indirectly affected by diseases that cannot be cured without further research in stem cell. It has been found that approximately 128 million people in the U.S. alone are suffering from diseases that can be cured using stem cell research. 3 The financial cost of treating these diseases and the resulting inability to offer complete treatment is estimated to be close to $100 billion in the U.S. 4 Thus the uses and the expected potential uses are enormous and therefore stem cell research is extremely critical for effective medical progress in various areas. However the fact it has become controversial is causing more damage to the research than it should have because the research is tremendously beneficial to the human race and I believe that it is far more important to protect the lives that are already here instead of needlessly worrying about the ones that were not needed and never transpired.
Stem cell research in Ethical framework
Using the Utilitarian framework, we can resolve this issue effectively. If an action maximizes happiness, it should be preferred. Simply spoken, if an action leads to maximum benefits for the maximum people, it must be considered correct and the right action to take. When a blastocyst is obtained legally, there should be no reason to object to the progress of stem cell research because it does in fact maximize the happiness of many. The benefits will extend to the entire human race and make it much healthier than ever before.
If we are looking at fairness and justice framework, we must ask ourselves: how is it fair for a child to be born with genetic disorder simply because his parents had defective genes? Isn’t the principle of justice and fairness states that a person must be given a fair chance at life and health? But this chance is taken away from a child when he is born with genetic disorders: something that he never decided for himself. To be able to give every child a good chance…