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Stem cell research is a fairly new advancement in science today. Stem cell research has many medical advantages. It can be used to assist patients with various diseases such as cancers, Parkinson disease, spinal cord injuries, yet it has been one of the most discussed topic in the past years. There are different kinds of stem cells used in research: Adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Unlike adult stem cells which have limited use, embryonic stem cells are appreciated due to their ability to specialize into the different cells of the body. Embryonic stem cell research is a highly debated topic. It poses an ethical concern and questions our morality as human beings. The embryo is seen as potential future life, and destroying it for the purposed of research is seen as immoral by many. There has always been a dilemma concerning this topic. What is more moral: to carry out medical research in order to develop ways to end suffering of many people? Or saving a potential human life? It is a tough choice. This further raises a very important question, what is morality? Morality according to its definition is “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” But is the reality that simple? Can we really categorize scientific research in two conflicting groups? I believe that embryonic stem cell research has a significant benefit to the society and is therefore ethical. Research should be encouraged to provide more efficient ways to enhance healthcare.
Morality cannot be simply broken down into a black and white idea. What most people do not understand is that morality is far more complex than that, especially when associated with the topic of scientific research. It varies depending on the situation it has been applied to. What makes something right or wrong? It is difficult to understand the concept of morality when introduced with science. For example, in the above scenario, how does one determine what is the more ethical choice? Most people would be against embryonic research as the thought of killing a potential life seems atrocious. But is that any worse than allowing hundreds of others to suffer with life taking conditions? It is very difficult to create a balance between morality and scientific advancement. In a 2000 BBC News report, the viewers were shown tubes that contained frozen embryonic cells. The reporter stated, “Each of these tubes contains frozen human embryos . . . To some they are the first stage of human life which we interfere with at our peril. To others they are small clusters of cells which could offer hope to thousands living with devastating disease.” This brought forth one of the most controversial questions that people have with stem cell research, “Is it okay to take the life of an unborn child in order to save the life of someone who is sick?” The benefits of this research hugely opposes the moral aspect in question, as the research on one ‘potential life’ can be used to thousands of actual lives which should be the obvious practical choice.
Steven Pinker, a Professor at the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, in his writing, compares the very famous Mother Teresa and Bill Gates on their morality. He mentions how Mother Teresa’s work with the poor “has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century”, while Gates on the other hand “has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face”. This is the immediate response one has for these people but is that the reality? When given more thought, it is easy to see that our perception may not be accurate. “Gates… determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.” This may completely shift the way some of us look at these famous people. Pinker’s writing gives us an insight of human nature. We are quick to judge and bring down an idea without having complete information about it. Stem cell research suffers due to this same concept, in that one’s perspective towards it is biased based on whatever little knowledge they have of the topic. Steven’s text reflects our understanding of morality and can be applied in scientific decisions. When we ridicule stem cell research even after knowing the benefits that it has to provide to us, we prioritize what we claim to be ‘potential life’ for many more actual lives. This is not a moral choice; it is us allowing our emotions to take charge of ourselves. The logical decision would be to go forward with this research and allow it to have a positive impact on the society.
Religious beliefs may also be key to acceptance of this fairly new research technology. So how does religion play a role into endurance of stem cell research? Each one of us have grown up with beliefs that shape our understanding and acceptance towards the workings of the world. Religion is the major basis of our morality, therefore it is important to consider how an embryo is seen by the various religions. A paper from the Department of Science and Technology Studies, Faculty of Science, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur 50603, Malaysia shows studies done to analyze ethical positions on the use of ‘research embryos’ of some of the largest religions of the world (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Catholicism). The results of the test were quite preferential with most of them leaning towards giving priority to life over a five-day old embryo. “Taking stock of the ethical viewpoints of Buddhist and Hindu leaders, it appears that the donation of leftover IVF embryos for research that may lead to saving lives has been accepted. Islamic deliberations also point in this direction.” The research also shows resistance from Catholicism towards embryonic stem cell research. The Pontifical Academy of Life released the ‘Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells’ in the year 2000, including a catholic view on the morality of ESCR, saying “the human embryo from the moment of union of sperm and egg is a well-defined identity…and thus cannot be considered as a mass of cells’. This further emphasizes on the complexity of this topic, providing us with varied views and opinions.
One of the main reason behind the conflict is the misconceptions or complete lack of knowledge that the general non-scientific public has about this topic. These embryos come from in vitro fertilization procedures. IVF may produce multiple fertilized eggs which within a few days develop into early stage embryos. Some of these are implanted into the woman. The remaining can be stored for future use or otherwise are destroyed. It must be noted that the embryos that were rejected for implantation are the ones used (with consent of the donor) for research. As mentioned in the article Myths and Misconceptions About Stem Cell Research, “The embryos used to create embryonic stem cell lines were already destined to be destroyed.” This elaborates on the reality that “the innocent will die in any case and, another innocent life can be saved by not letting it die.” People so quickly judge this use in stem cell research but IVF is a very common procedure used by parents who cannot have a child by natural means. How is it then that it is stem cell research that is considered unethical and forbidden. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says “People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.” This suggests that it is not easy to explain one’s moral point or reasoning in a situation, it is more of an intuition that one feels towards a particular situation that they experience.
The debate about using embryonic cells is portrayed in the media as a binary debate between two sides. On one side were those who believe that the benefits of using these cells completely outweigh the moral dilemma of whether or not it is right to use the cells. On the other side of the debate are those who believe the use of these cells was abusive to the embryo. The media has played a major part in the debate about the morality of using embryonic cells for research. For example, the Guardian, a daily British newspaper, released two articles that were written in order to show both sides of the debate for the use of embryonic cells. One article “The case for, this could stop Parkinson’s in its tracks” was written by the Director of Policy and Research for the Parkinson’s Disease Society in order to show the advantages to the usage of these cells with the development of a treatment for this disease. The other article “The case against, cherish life, don’t consume it’, written by Helen Watt, a research fellow at the Catholic-funded Linacre Centre for HealthCare Ethics, in order to demonstrate how precious an unborn life truly is and how it would be cruel to simply end it. Watt writes in her article that the real problem with the usage of embryo’s in research is that the extraction of the cells destroys the embryo. She writes, “stem cell therapy need not involve cells from embryos. Using adult stem cells would not pose any ethical problem in principle, for the simple reason that the adult would survive the extraction (Watt).” She goes on to write about the fact that the embryo, whether viable or not, can one day become a living organism. The difference in the extraction of cells from an embryo and an adult is the fact that the cells from an adult can be extracted from many of the organs, bone marrow, and brain tissue without much harm, whereas the stem cells from an embryo lead to the destruction of the embryo because there is not as much tissue to extract cells from. The destruction of the embryo is seen as inhumane because the potential life that could come from it. Researchers counter this argument by reporting that, in the time span at which the cells are viable, the embryo has not developed far enough for there to be any signs of life. The personification of these underdeveloped embryos is the main factor that brings anti-stem-cell-research supporters to the conclusion that it would be inhumane to destroy the cells, which is what Watt brings up multiple times in her article. This argument may pose a threat against stem cell research, however it is biased towards the production and use of ‘clones’ for research. It acknowledges the benefit of IVF treatment, but does not consider the fact that the left over cells from IVF are used for stem cell research. The media helped to add to the argument about morality by showing the world different views from many different sources and portraying them as opposite sides of a binary dispute.
The opposing sides of the debate each have reasons for their views on the topic. Researchers have provided facts and set limits for themselves when it comes to the amount of time that is acceptable when harvesting and using the cells. Researchers have given themselves, what is known as, the “14-day time limit”. This limit prevents the harvesting of embryos any time after 14 days because the embryos start developing much faster after 14 days. This limit is set to maintain moral boundaries. It is an effective boundary as it establishes a fair time frame before which the embryos can be used for research. This time limit is based on the scientific knowledge of the growth of the initial fetal cells. Before this 14 days’ period the embryo consists of just a few cells and are not developed enough to be considered a ‘potential baby’. Those who oppose the harvesting and usage of embryos have gained a major following because of their personification of the embryo. Opponents of stem cell research employ emotional tactics, “use language, images and narrative structures to invite us to imagine, identify with, and have emotional responses to the embryo” (Williams, 2003). While it is scientifically proven that the embryo has no feeling or senses, the usage of words like “unique” and “alive” have made it easier for the opposing side to make people question the morality of the usage of embryonic cells. Because people see the embryos and humans, there have been debates regarding “the basic human rights” of the embryo. Arguments like these have widened the gap between the opposing sides of the debate and made it much harder to answer the question of morality in this field of study.
Embryonic stem cell research is the solution to a lot of our medical problems and should be given the opportunity to enhance in order to better healthcare. While some say that it is inhumane to use embryonic cells, it still remains a fact that the embryos themselves do not show any signs of life or feeling. Therefore, there is no reason why the development of these forms of research should be hindered by “activists” against it. The usage of embryonic stem cells is necessary for the development of medical technologies that could one day lead to the cure for multiple diseases that have been untreatable until now.
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