Focusing on ethical issues associated with stem cell research, the paper will seek to clarify its implications by examining a peer-reviewed journal article and juxtaposing its contents with a popular press article. The author also establishes a position on the ethical admissibility of stem cell research.
Embryonic-stem-cell research arouses a great deal of controversy in contemporary society. On the one hand, use of embryos left over after in vitro as sources of material leads many to view this scientific endeavor as unethical. On the other hand, successful outcomes of embryonic stem cell research could save millions of human lives and relieve the sufferings of millions of more people. In my opinion, the positive consequences should be more important than methods as helping people is the first priority of science.
Stem cells derived from the brain mass of human embryos “have the potential to indefinitely regenerate specialized new cells such as brain or blood cells” (Kukla, 2002). This characteristic called “pluripotential” has not been found in adult stem cells, which makes scientists rely on embryonic stem cells (White House, 2001). Therefore, researchers have to rely on using embryos, and many consider stem cell research projects unethical.
These considerations led the White House to limit federal financial support for stem cell research programs in August 2001, refusing to provide funding for programs that use stem cells “derived from newly destroyed embryos”, envisage “the creation of any human embryos for research purposes” or cloning (White House, 2001). The issue was raised again in the presidential campaign when Kerry vowed to overturn Bush’s policy on stem cell research (Kalb, Rosenberg, n.d.).
This decision has revived the debate as to the ethical, scientific and legal backgrounds of embryonic stem cell research. These justifications are explored in the article “Embryonic stem cell research: An ethical justification” by Heather Johnson Kukla published in Georgetown Law Journal. They are relevant in the light of a reinvigorated debate about the ethicality of ways of obtaining material for such research programs triggered by the alleged success of Korean professor Hwang’s experiments. Although the results of the experiments proved to be a sham, the discussion as to the methods of conducting them have repercussions for the new generation of research programs. These ramifications are discussed in the article “South Korean Stem-Cell Research Spawns Ethics Debate” on Daily Central News.
1. EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH: SCIENTIFIC, LEGAL AND ETHICAL GROUNDS
The ethical debate about stem cell research rotates not around the possible implications of this kind of research, but around the sources of material. Scientists, in fact, promise some breakthrough discoveries with the help of stem cell programs that should supply virtually unlimited source of blood for transfusions (Kukla, 2002). Kukla (2002) reviews primary documents and comments by scientists and politicians in order to establish the legal, scientific and ethical status of the debate.
The legal status of stem cell research in the US depends on the decisions on a provision of federal funding for these programs. Thus, the ban on embryonic stem cell research imposed by federal law in 1996, was revised after Harriet Rabb, HHS General Counsel, expressed the opinion in 1999 that since cells were not factually embryos, the ban on embryonic research should not apply to stem cell programs. This opened the way for NIH to fund such research if cells came from private research programs. This did not prevent President Bush from severely limiting the scope of programs to a very limited set of circumstances in 2001.
The ethical status of stem cell research depends on the definition of the moral status of the embryo. If one, following Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, accepts that embryos have the same moral value as human beings, their destruction is immoral. On the contrary, others deny this equality and still others occupy an intermediate position under which “embryos, although lacking moral status as human persons, deserve a certain respect” (Kukla, 2002).
What exactly constitutes this respect is also open to debate, as it involves balancing between ethical and scientific considerations. Kukla (2002) provides a list of diseases that can be become curable due to application of stem cells, as outlined in the report of Commission 131 and the NIH in 2001: “Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and kidney failure” as well as “Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, traumatic spinal cord injury, Purkinje cell degeneration, Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, heart failure, and osteogenesis imperfecta”. This shows that benefits are considerable and can outweigh the negatives since human lives can be saved with the results of stem cell research. At the same time, use of embryos is unacceptable, for instance, in cosmetics testing. The article proceeds to evaluate various options for the use of embryos abandoned by donors as well as other sources of embryos such as adult stem cells and creation of embryos solely for research purposes.
Kukla (2002) arrives at the conclusion that stem cell research is justifiable and should be allowed, but only on condition of certain limitations. Thus, sales of embryos should be prohibited, informal consent of donors guaranteed, and the genetic material of gamete donors protected in terms of privacy.
2. RENEWED DEBATE AFTER KOREAN EXPERIMENTS
The journalists of Daily News Central focused on the ethical implication of Hwang Woo Suk’s experiments in Korea. They indicate concerns raised by the alleged sale of 20 embryos to Hwang and the allegation that eggs were donated to Hwang by his junior assistants – two facts perceived as ethical violations. Dr. Roh, head of the Seoul hospital where Hwang conducted his experiments, named this program as the way toward “fulfilling one of humankind’s biggest dreams”.
The authors explore the legality of financial rewards for egg donation in different countries. Thus, South Korea prohibited this practice in 2001, and the National Academies of the United States recommended scientists to give up this way of obtaining research material. In Korea, national TV channel MSC shared the concern that embryos were received from women who used them to cover their debts.
Both articles reviewed provide insights into the ethical implications associated with stem cell research programs. The article in Daily Central News ties in the ethical debate with a particular instance of Dr. Hwang’s research, illustrating the general ethical principles and guidelines with a concrete example. In contrast, Heather Johnson Kukla’s publication offers a broad overview of issues connected with stem cell research. Both articles provide information on the legal status of this research, with Daily Central giving a brief overview of both Korean and US legislature, and Kukla offering an in-depth analysis of the history of regulation of stem cell research in the US.
Review of the above publications has reinforced my belief that stem cell research has to be continued as it holds more promise than a threat. After all, the extensive list of currently incurable diseases that can become treatable with the help of this research makes it an important scientific endeavor. Prohibition of embryonic stem cell research would deprive people suffering from these diseases of hope, which in itself would be cruel and inhuman. Surely it is important to restrict this research with provisions that would prohibit the blatantly unethical practices such as sale of embryos for debts. However, the whole paradigm of scholarly studies should be upheld since it holds amazing promises for an important breakthrough in medical science.
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