To better grasp the challenges that this research poses, an understanding of the basics of human stem cell research must be accomplished. Much of the debate over stem cell research escalated when "on November 5, 1998, scientists at Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin announced they had succeeded in establishing culture lines fi7om human embryonic stem cells" (Nelson 49). Stem cells are important for research because they possess an ability unique to any other cell of an organism. Stem cells are termed pluripotent meaning that they are "capable of giving rise to most tissues of an organism" (NIH 1). These are cells that have not yet differentiated into specific cell types. They are found in developing embryos, the reproductive tissue of fetuses, and, to some extent, in certain tissues of the adult. Researchers are hoping to utilize the uniqueness of stem cells to develop treatments and cures for a vast array of serious conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, spinal cord injuries, cancer, bums, and multiple sclerosis to name a few. In fact, the National Institutes of Health states that "there is almost no realm of medicine that might not be touched by this innovation' (3).
Although most people would agree that the potential of this research is good, the major conflict is the manner in which the stem cells are derived. At Johns Hopkins University, the stem cells were derived from cells taken from the reproductive tissue of aborted human fetuses (NIH 2). At the University of Wisconsin, the stem cells were derived from the inner cell mass of six to seven day old human embryos that were excess from in vitro fertilization treatments (NIH 2). Because embryonic stem cells are virtually limitless in their ability to form all cell types, they are considered the prime source of stem cells for research. But, in obtaining the stem cells from the inner cell mass, the embryo is destroyed in the process. Even more disturbing to those opposed to this research, is the desire of some scientists to create their own embryos solely for research purposes.
In following some of the ideas of the humanistic tradition, supporters of human embryonic stem cell research argue that this research is beneficial. One underlying idea of supporters is that scientific knowledge is beneficial. This idea reached its pinnacle during -the Scientific Revolution that occurred between 1600 and 1750 with input 6om at least one scientist: Francis Bacon. Bacon believed that knowledge was power and this power could be used to control nature and thus benefit humanity. In The New Scientific Method, Bacon states "now the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers" (I 5). This idea continues to be a major concept held by the technology-centered society of today. In applying this idea to stem cell research, the knowledge gained through this research will benefit humanity because humans will gain power over the medical conditions that cause suffering and disability. This idea is evident in the statements of Allen Spiegel and Gerald Fischbach to the Senate appropriations subcommittee. In their statements, the authors note that stem cell research could "help us to understand the complex events that occur during normal human development ... allow us to further delineate the fundamental errors that cause these often deadly illnesses...dramatically change the way we develop drugs and test them for safety ... [and enable] the generation of cells and tissue that could be used for cell transplantation therapies' (Spiegel and Fischbach, pars. 4-7). It is easy to envision the enormous power that scientific and medical knowledge would have over the human body which would carry far-reaching benefits for humanity.
Another idea underlying the supporters of embryonic stem cell research is that of amazing human potential. As a major impetus in today's society, the idea of maximizing human potential for fulfillment on earth evolved with the help of Renaissance humanists such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. In Oration on the Dignity of Man: Pico showed that human beings hold a special place in the universe and we should aspire to achieve a higher level of being through intellectual pursuits (255). This idea has persisted from the Renaissance to today. Unfortunately, for many people, this idea may seem more like a distant fantasy that is unattainable due to disabilities as a result of their physical condition. This is most evident in individuals that are afflicted by diseases of the nervous system such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, brain trauma, cerebral palsy and mental retardation. As is well known, brain cells, once damaged, are lost forever because these cells do not have the ability to regenerate. People with diseases such as these either have limited physical movement or cognitive deficiencies that significantly inhibit their ability to achieve their dreams and goals. Human embryonic stem cell research may hold the key to finally developing treatments for these disorders which, at present, have no cure. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission reports that "in mice, neural stem cells already have been shown to be effective in replacing cells throughout the brain and in some cases are capable of correcting neurological defects' (NBAC 2, 22).
Another underlying idea of supporters of embryonic stem cell research is that science has a duty to apply its knowledge to benefit humanity. This concept emerged out of the era of the Scientific Revolution as an attempt to define the compatibility of science and religion. Galileo Galilei is the scientist of that era that stands out in promoting the idea that there is no conflict between science and religion. In defending his scientific ideas under accusations of heresy, Galileo states "I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use" (57). In other words, humans have been given these special abilities by God; therefore, any scientific discoveries made in using these abilities should be seen as pleasing to God. Many people today believe, as Galileo did, that there is no moral conflict between science and religion; and, that God (or a higher power) would not give science the ability to cure disease and then condemn the use of that ability as a moral wrongdoing. This idea is evident in many of the literature supporting embryonic stem cell research. One example is from Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism in a letter of testimony on human stem cell research to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He states that according to the Jewish tradition
the mere fact that human beings created a specific therapy rather than finding it in nature does not impugn its legitimacy. On the contrary, we have a duty to God to develop and use therapies that can aid us in taking care of our bodies, which ultimately belong to God. (Dorff C3).
Rabbi Dorff is not alone in his opinion that human cell research is both a duty and morally permissible. Andrew Siegel quotes the opinion of 33 Nobel laureates in a letter to congress voicing their support of human stem cell research: "Those who seek to prevent medical advances using stem cells must be held accountable to those who suffer from horrible disease and their families, why such hope should be withheld" (Siegel J3). These scholars also illustrate the idea that science has a duty to use its knowledge to benefit humanity.
On the other side of the debate on embryonic stem cell research, some of the ideas of the humanistic tradition underlie the opposition's position that this research is unethical. -One underlying idea of opponents is that this research is utilitarian. Utilitarianism evolved as a
social theory during the nineteenth century with the writings of Jeremy Bent ham and John Stuart Mill. In his work Utilitarianism, Mill states the principle of utilitarianism "of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any reefing of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure" (334). In other words, this principle maintains that the moral rightness of a situation can be upheld if the decision is based on "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" (Fiero 2, 78). Today, the ethical precept of utilitarianism is viewed as being inadequate in dealing with issues relating to bioethics. This is because today's society does not believe that people can do whatever they chose as long as the end result is good, especially when dealing with life and death issues. Aiken and Catalano state that "when dealing with health care issues that involve individuals' fives, quantifying such concepts as 'good,' 'harmful' 'beneficial,' or 'greatest' is especially difficult" (28). This is especially true in the conflict over embryonic stem cell research. Opponents of this research argue that the destruction of human embryos cannot be justified merely because the end result will benefit society. In fact, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity states that "these experiments were and are driven by a crass utilitarian ethos which results in the creation of a 'sub-class' of human beings, allowing the rights of the few to be sacrificed for the sake of potential benefit to the many" and "we are simply not free to pursue good ends via unethical means" (4).
The opposition’s idea that this research is utilitarian also leads them to argue that this research violates human rights. The concept of natural rights for all human beings has been an evolving concept for hundreds of years, but it was especially glorified during the
Enlightenment Era. Thomas Hobbes is one Enlightenment thinker that perpetuated the idea of the existence of natural rights of humankind. He believed that these rights included freedom, equality, and preservation of the self (Hobbes 34-5). This idea continues to be a guiding principle today which is evident in writings such as the Declaration of Independence: "they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Graff). This concept of rights means that all human beings are worthy of freedom, equality, and self-preservation which cannot be taken away from them. Opponents of stem cell research believe that this research undermines the modem concepts of human rights and protection of human dignity. They view the embryos as human beings that have equal ethical and legal rights. One group of opponents states:
Our nation's traditional protection of human fife and human rights derives from an affirmation of the essential dignity of every human being. Likewise, the international structure of human rights law--one of the great achievements of the modem world--is founded on the conviction that when the dignity of one human being is assaulted, all of us are threatened. (CBHD 1)
Opponents contend that by stating embryos are not worthy of dignity and equal
protection, we are all not worthy. In addition, opponents argue that the legal rights of the embryo are also violated by this research. The legal precepts that they are referring to are laws that relate to the protection of human research subjects such as the Nuremberg Code, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects. These laws protect human research subjects from undue harm and death, and they require informed consent of the participant. Opponents of stem cell research hold that this research violates these codes because embryos are killed and they cannot give informed consent.
Another underlying idea of opponents of embryonic stem cell research is the idea that science is not the ultimate authority. The idea that science and technology works against humanity has been a repeating theme throughout history. In the ancient world, Lao Tsu, a Chinese philosopher, advocated a resistance to technology in favor of a more spiritual existence with nature. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu states that "The world is ruled by letting things take their course / It cannot be ruled by interfering" (48). Likewise, Mary Shelley's story Frankenstein illustrates the idea that when humans attempt to control the natural world, they may cause more harm than good, like the scientist that was destroyed by his own creation. Shelley's ideas demonstrate that science, left unchecked, does not always lead to what is good for humanity and can sometimes lead to what is harmful. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity states that "claiming that human embryonic stem cell research is too promising to be slowed or prohibited underscore the sort of utopianism and hubris that could blind us to the truth of what we are doing and the harm we could cause to ourselves and others" (3). In other words, scientists performing research on stem cells may be under a false sense of security that their efforts are good when, in fact, they could be doing great harm to all of humanity.
Both sides of the conflict of embryonic stem cell research have good arguments based on sound principles handed down from the humanistic tradition. But, in weighing all the issues surrounding the conflict on embryonic stem cell research, I believe the most compelling argument supports the continuation of this research because it reflects what is most beneficial for humanity. This research has such overwhelming possibilities to end human suffering and reduce health care costs that it would be a mistake to completely turn our backs on it at this time. But, the opposition's argument regarding ethical and moral standards must be taken into account in order to control the application of this research. President Bill Clinton, in a letter to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, supports this: "Although the ethical issues have not diminished, it now appears that this research may have real potential for treating such devastating illnesses as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Parkinson's disease. With this in mind, I am also requesting that the Commission undertake a thorough review of the issues associated with such human stem cell research, balancing all ethical and medical considerations."
One reason that the argument to continue this research is so compelling is the vast array of potential benefits to a multitude of people. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to end human suffering and improve the quality of life for many people. This research may lead to treatments and/or cures for a number of diseases including cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, and heart disease to name a few. These diseases currently cause human suffering such as chronic pain, physical deformity, social isolation, and having to watch loved ones die a prolonged, undignified, painful death. Also, these diseases decrease quality of life for many people through activity restrictions, imposed unemployment due to disability, and the inability to productively contribute to families and society. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to develop treatments and even cures for these diseases that, up to the present time, research has been unable to accomplish.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have claimed that this type of reasoning is utilitarianism at its worst which "[allows] the rights of the few to be sacrificed for the sake of potential benefit to the many" (4). While such an argument is true in the case of killing a newborn, child or adult for the sake of benefiting others, the utilitarian argument does not hold true in this case. For instance, whether these cells are obtained from six-day-old embryos or from six-week-old aborted fetuses, human beings are not being sacrificed for the benefit of others. The embryos that are required for this research cannot be more than six or seven days old because after that time, the cells would already have differentiated into specific cell types and, thus, would be useless for this research (NBAC 2, 9). At this stage of embryonic development, the embryo would be only about 20 cells in total. Under microscopic examination, it would be impossible to distinguish whether these cells were even human because they do not have any defining human structure or capabilities. In addition, the process of deriving stem cells from aborted fetuses does not constitute the sacrifice of one human being for another. One reason is because the aborted fetuses are a result of the mother's choice to electively abort her fetus without any connection to the research process at all.
In addition to all the potential benefits, this research has the ability to maximize human potential through the reduction of health care costs. In 1995, health care expenditures in the United States were approximately $1 trillion, and are expected to reach $2.2 trillion by the year 2005 (Zerwekh 275). This figure represents a projection of 18% of the gross domestic
product for 2005 (Zerwekh 275). One reason for such a huge amount of money being spent on health care is the long-term costs associated with chronic diseases, especially cancer, heart disease and diabetes mellitus. The long-term costs of these diseases are caused by expensive, lifelong treatments, excessive use of health care services, and repeated hospital readmissions for complications related to the disease processes. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to reduce or even eliminate some of these long-term costs through the development of cures for these diseases or treatments that halt disease progression and complications. Subsequently, by reducing the enormous costs and demands on the health care system, the financial burden to families, communities and the nation can be reduced. Therefore, more money could be channeled into programs that would benefit everyone such as adequate housing and nutrition, health maintenance, and education. In this way, efforts could be refocused on enabling people to fulfill their human potential. Unfortunately, for many people today, this idea may seem more like a distant fantasy that, in reality, is unattainable due to the limits of their social environment as well as the limits of their medical condition. Some of these barriers could be reduced through the wide-ranging effects that stem cell research could have on the individual, the health care system and, subsequently, society as a whole.
Another reason that this research should continue is because it demonstrates dignity for the embryos and fetuses. Embryonic stem cell research is a responsible use of human tissue. During the process of assisted reproductive technology, or in vitro fertilization, any remaining, "nonviable embryos are discarded" (NBAC 2, 17). Also, aborted fetuses are destroyed and later discarded. In both of these instances, there is not potential at all for these tissues to become
fully formed human beings. It has been said that research involving embryos and fetuses is unethical and disrespects all human life because "when the dignity of one human being is assaulted, all of us are threatened" (CBHD 1). While such a claim may be true, it does not account for the disrespect shown to these embryos by merely turning them into trash. I believe that the utmost dignity and respect for these embryos can best be demonstrated by putting them to good use.
Probably the most compelling argument in favor of continuing human stem cell research is the duty of science to benefit humanity. I believe it more unethical to withhold the possibility for disease cures than it is to destroy an embryo that has not potential at all for becoming a human being. Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, echoes this idea when she asks, "when does the life of a potential person take precedence over an already existing person?" (Hontz 9). These embryos are human and should be treated in a respectful manner, but they do not have the potential to become human beings. Therefore, the most ethical treatment of embryos and patients alike would be to use the embryos in a productive and meaningful way. The embryos then have the ability to leave their mark on society by improving the fives of many people.
One major objection of opponents of stem cell research is the argument that this research may do more harm than good. Scientists have, in the past, overreached their knowledge and, as a result, have caused humanity more harm than good. One good example is well evidenced by the environmentalist Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring. In her book, Carson shows that when science attempted to control pests for the "good" of humanity, the end result was massive destruction and damage to our environment which ultimately harms the human race. Likewise, many opponents of stem cell research hold that these researchers are being overly confident and in their haste to apply their knowledge they could do more harm to humanity than good. Some potential harm and abuses that have been foreseen are creating embryos solely for research, creating embryos and fetuses for hire, cloning, and using this research as a quest for immortality. Admittedly, these are outcomes that would probably not be advocated by the most faithful supporters of stem cell research. As a result, this research must be federal funded and regulated. Federal funding would diminish the possibility for unethical and harmful research because those receiving federal funds would have to adhere to strict guidelines. The National Institutes of Health, following recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, has drafted guidelines that specifically addresses many potential abuses of human stem cell research. One section of the guidelines deals with the embryos and fetuses and how they are to be obtained. These tissues "must be obtained with the donor's informed consent" without any financial reward (Lee 81). In addition, the embryos must originate from excess from infertility treatments and cannot be created solely for research. Also, these guidelines specifically address and condemn any research practices on embryos that would constitute cloning or combining human and animal cells. Also, the NIH guidelines establish the Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Review Group which will monitor research activities to ensure that all the regulations are followed and that science does not get out of control.
In looking at the ideas of the humanistic tradition that have shaped our thinking and
attitudes, the underlying values and assumptions on both sides of embryonic stem cell
research can be discovered. These concepts define our ideas of survival, how we chose to five together with differing opinions, and how we understand ourselves and our place in the universe in the realm of expanding technology. Therefore, by following the ideas and examples of the past, we can proceed in advancing the enormous benefits of stem cell technology both ethically and responsibly.
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