As we have entered into a new millennium, we are witnessing a number of changes around us, ranging from a small technology to biggest medical discoveries. It has also brought vast changes or rather improvements into bioscience as well, like completion of genome sequence, microarray technology to measure simultaneously the expressions of thousands of genes (Okarma). We have even been able to improve the efficiency of drugs. The latest technologies are really being helpful into the cure of chronic diseases.
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Among these the outstanding advancements is successful derivation of human embryonic stem (hES) cells. (Thompson 1998, 282). The embryonic stem cells are the self-renewing cells and they have got the capacity to produce all kind of human body cells. The sparkling advantages of these stem cells are, they allow permanent repair of the failing organs by injecting healthy functional cells that are developed from them. This field of medicine is also known as regenerative medicine. For example, the nervous tissues and the heart tissues cannot repair themselves as gastro-intestinal cells and skin tissues; the stem cells therapy allows the repair of these kinds of cells.
Human body is made of certain organ systems that are capable of regeneration by themselves only throughout life, the skin cells are constantly shedding and they are replaced timely, same with the blood cells as well. The embryonic stem cells are the cells, that can produce any kind of human body cells. (Okarma).
Understanding Human developmental biology
Now for the obvious practical medical purpose it is nearly impossible to vigorously study the embryonic development of the humans. However the study of embryonic stem cells allows us to reveal the nature of human body development in every aspect from cells to cells and from tissues to tissues. Despite the study of laboratory animals for these purposes as they are identical with human body, certain aspects of human body and its mechanisms are different. (Okarma).
It has been an objective of US health care system to study the reproductive and embryonic development in humans because according to statistics, one in every six couple trying to conceive show fertility disorders. 15% of the recognized pregnancy show premature pregnancy loss in United States. (Okarma). Until now study of embryogenesis at earlier stages was out of reach of scientists to direct studies. Since the introduction of the embryonic stem cells study it has become possible to study all the stages of human embryo or fetus development. This is an revolutionary invention that has provided us a number of ways to reach the roots of developmental defects and birth defects in humans. (Okarma).
During the pregnancy the women are exposed to number of agents that can result into the child birth defects and fetal abnormalities, known as Teratogens. The human stem cells study can allow the screening of the environmental toxic agents and pharmaceuticals that could cause abnormalities of the developing fetus. (Okarma)
Source of Human embryonic stem cells
The invention of the stem cells from human embryo has been the most exciting development in the medical science. The medical experts worldwide have been more interested in using the
Human embryonic stem cells into Regenerative medicine. The use of the human embryonic stem cells raises different ethical questions. The application of these cells can be applied to tissue engineering, genetic engineering and other medical research purposes. The use of the adult stem cells has not raised a controversy but the utilization of the human embryonic stem cells raise different ethical questions based on the sources of the cells. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005)
There are three different sources for the stem cells that are currently used:
Existing stem cell lines of the embryo
Spare embryo- the embryos that are left unused.
Embryos that are created for the purpose of research only. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005)
Now from human embryos only there are two ways of getting the stem cells. First from the umbilical cord or uterine water and second is from the fetuses themselves. Now the first source of the cells produce less ethical questions because there are less moral issues related to the source of the cells. In second source when the fetuses are aborted, the cells are derived from them without difficulty. The ethical danger involved here is it is really hard and unethical to imagine that a woman is convinced to become pregnant for the sake of harvesting the fetus embryonic cells. (Teutsch).
For example, surveys in the United States show that there is great public controversy about
Embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005). These days limitations on stem cell research vary by country. In some places this research is not sufficiently supervised and regulated, and this raises moral questions themselves (Teutsch).
The Ethical Problem
When the question of moral status of embryo is raised, on one hand we are concerned with the rights they have got for the protection of life health, and body. And on the other hand what all obligations the moral agents do have towards them in regard to preserving these goods. (Østnor)
The critics of stem cell research state a couple of main objectives: some of them state that despite its worthy ends, stem cell research is unethical because there, destruction of the human embryos is involved. Whereas others fear that even if research in itself is not unethical it will obviously create the possibilities of the dehumanizing practices, for examples, cloned babies, and embryo farms and use of fetuses as spare parts. Eventually this will lead to commoditization of human lives. (Michael J. Sandel, 2004). Some view the destruction of the human embryos during the stem cells research same as yanking the organs from a baby to save any other human life so, baby dies and other lives. Some of them combine the religious beliefs that the ensoulments occur at the time of conception only. While others try to defend without recourse to religious that we begin our life as embryo. If our life is worthy of respect irrespective of our age, then these embryos also should be considered as living organisms and hence should not be killed. (Michael J. Sandel, 2004).
If stem cell therapy will be in routine practice, then the embryonic materials will become the source of the therapeutics and by using them there will be a situation where the respect for the human life will decrease. In these ways the sacrifice of the embryos earlier in their life will encourage polices of sacrificing the vulnerable for the benefits of others. This is also known as “slippery-slope argument”, meaning if we accept one condition then this acceptance will lead us to the toleration of certain unacceptable conditions. According to some moral philosophers there has always been a difference between act and omission. Actively killing someone is different than the passive efforts not put into practice to save someone. Though the outcome into both the cases is same here, both can be argued as destruction.
Counter argument: In the counter argument, there are several who believe that the use of the spare embryos would not mean the destruction of life. They say that there is no issue to believe that the destruction of human embryo will undermine the respect of the human life in society. As destruction of embryos during the process of invitro fertilization and abortion has been in practice since a long, no change in the respect of human life has been observed. The destruction of the spare embryos during the process of invitro fertilization should be considered more problematic than the destruction of the spare embryo resulting from invitro fertilization to produce stem cells for the purpose of the therapeutics. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005)
If we consider that the destruction of the embryos for the purpose of stems cells harvesting in order to find cure of certain incurable diseases immoral than the use of embryos for the purpose of treating infertility also should be considered immoral. It has been always in question whether the human embryos can be used for all purposes or for certain of them, for example certain prefers that its permeable to destruct the human embryos for the development of the cosmetics. Currently the accepted position is that that the human embryos should be used only in order to create the cure of certain human diseases only. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005). When the spare embryos that are donated for the purpose of research remain unused after a long period, they are destroyed. So there is no ethical question is raised there. So ultimately the outcome that the embryos are going to be used for the goodness of humans should be taken into consideration rather than making ethical questions, according to some. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005). The stem cells technology is also involved in the cloning process by somatic cell nuclear transfer. Now it can also be argues that allowing cloning technology by somatic cell nuclear transfer can be a step towards human reproductive cloning and its world wide acceptance. But there has been some counter arguments against human cloning by these techniques as use of certain techniques for this purpose is prohibited in most part of the world so legislation might prohibit reproductive cloning even if the application of somatic cell nuclear transfer technology to generate embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells from embryos may be an important step in the development of the cloning technology. There is also a danger of commercial pressure driving to promote more research of these kinds resulting into the decreased intrinsic respect of human body and life. (Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005).
The research program on embryonic stems cells produces moral dilemma. It makes us to choose from two moral principles.
Alleviate suffering or a duty to prevent.
The duty of respecting the human body and life. (Hug, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma, 2011)
Either an embryo is considered as a person whilst it’s still an embryo, or its viewed as a potential person. The criterion of a ‘personhood’ is really unclear.
Arguments: the development of a person from an embryo is the continuous process; it starts as early as the egg is fertilized. As infancy is the stage where the human is in infant stage like that only this is the stage where the human is in the stage of embryo, the only fact that it does not hold any human characteristics at this stage. Eventually it will become a person so it should be given respect.
Counter-arguments: Before implanting them into uterus, the embryos invitro does not hold any psychological, emotional and physical characteristics of a person. So it does not hold any interest to be prevented and those can be used for the benefits of the patients who are persons. (Hug, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma, 2011)
There has been also argument that the embryo has increasing status as it grows. There are several stages that might give importance to the embryos, e.g. implantation of embryo after six days of fertilization, the appearance of the primitive steak which is the beginning of development of the nervous system. The stage at which if baby is delivered prematurely then also can be survived. And finally birth. (Hug, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma, 2011)
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Counter-arguments: we protect persons interests and life because they are important and valuables from the point of interest to universe but because they are valuable to the persons they are concerned with. Whatever moral status the embryo holds, the life it lives has a value to embryo itself. We cannot make any moral judgment based on the age of embryo, if we say that it becomes human as the primitive steak is formed, then what if the person who loses its nervous system in a stroke? is he not a human? (Hug, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma, 2011)
Different religions view stem cell research in different ways. Roman Catholic, orthodox and other protestant churches believe that the life begins as early as conception occurs, so no research should be permitted. Judaism and Islam emphasize the importance of helping others, so they prefer that the stem cells research should be permitted. They consider that there is no life before 40 days. (Hug, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma, 2011)
Should public funds be used to support such research?
Though they are very microscopic, the stem cells have created a issue between the research scientists and the right to life advocates. As the stem cell research program needs a lot of investments, the question of who should fund the research program, has been in discussion since last few years. Scientists want to study and research the embryonic stem cells in hope of finding the unanswered treatments of certain incurable human diseases like spinal cord injuries, Parkinsonism, certain birth deformities, nervous system diseases and many more life threatening conditions. President of USA, Barack Obama issued an executive order to use the federal money in stem cells research programs in 2009. There have been many controversies against presidents this order. (Should the government fund embryonic stem cell research?)
The United States Congress and the legislatures of more than 28 states have considered spending billions of tax payers’ dollars into the stem cell research program over next several years. In 2004 California state government organized a people’s pole to know their will of spending the public fund for stem cells research programs. It is also known as Proposition 71 bond measure, which had authorized the state to raise 3 billion USD over upcoming 10 years to fund such research. Then also the debates rage over the ethical question that whether the public fund should be used for such program in which the embryos, which are considered lives, killed. Is it really justified to use public funding for such research? (Elgin, 2008)
The programs like Proposition 71 are stuck in to mud as they are politically debatable, speculative and controversial because the stem cells research itself is very politically controversial. Each stem cells research program remains to be highly speculative so the government should not gamble with public fund into such programs where we cannot predict the results at all. (Elgin, 2008).
In an interview with the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) experts they expressed their view as follows. Owen Witte who is the director of the stem cell biology and medicine said that its governments responsibility to do everything possible. Edwin Bayrd, UCLA AIDS Institute had to say that this country has a long tradition of funding scientific research from taxpayer’s fund. So these research programs also can never be exceptions. Whereas Stephen Brainbridge added that if one believes that life begins at the time of conception then the act of creating lives by destroying them is an evil act. (“Do you believe public funds should be used to support stem cell research?, 2006)
At this point in time no one knows that how successful any stem cell research is going to be. Or it is still difficult to predict that whether the stem cell research can really find solution to certain incurable medical conditions. Embryonic stem cells are clearly versatile but the scientists have not been able to control the growth of those embryonic stem cells. On the other hand the interactions of stem cells with other types of cells may lead to the development of tumors and certain kind of tissue rejection reactions. In 2006, the US National academy of science stated that development of the feasible therapies out of the embryonic stem cells research may take years or even decades. Even if they find some therapies then, they are needed to be tested first, means more investments of time and money. So the politicians who promise of finding the cure for certain diseases are becoming totally disingenuous. (Elgin, 2008).
In November 2007, New Jersey voters rejected the initiative to borrow the sum of $450 million to invest or fund in a state-run stem cells program. Because the people of New Jersey knew how little was the advantage of public funding into the stem cells program in state of California. Following James Thomson’s discovery that stem cells are self renewing cells, the funding to stem cells research become political feasible and very popular, though the destruction of embryos for these purpose was considered unethical. (Elgin, 2008)
According to my personal views, my religious beliefs, it is unethical to kill the embryos and harvest the stem cells in a process to save the lives. It simply means that you are killing someone to save the lives of someone.
Better would be the developments of the alternatives to be away from all these ethical issues. To date there are eight alternatives available to the embryonic stem cells.
(Hug, Sources of human embryos for stem cell research, 2005)
The Stem cells have been found into adult tissues like skin, intestine, bone marrow, brain etc. those who are against the use of embryonic stem cells research claim the use of these alternatives of the stem cells.
There is a possible way to avoid destroying the viable human embryonic stem cells in the course of conducting research of stem cells could be to produce non-viable human embryo by performing nuclear transplant into a nuclear less egg of suitable species.
The Embryonic stem cells that are to be transplanted may be immunologically incompatible with that of recipient. So to solve this problem a tissue bank with the large number of different kind of stem cells can be established.
In place of using new embryos and embryonic stem cells line, scientists can use the embryonic stem cells and the differentiated stem cells obtained from them.
The new possibility has been found by scientist recently that the stem cells can be produced at an early stage than they used to be. Scientists have found the possibility of growing stem cells at four day old human embryo called Morula.
There is a theoretical possibility in which the possibility of destruction of the embryo can be avoided. Scientists are checking and testing the possibility of growing the single cell plucked from a Morula stage of embryo.
If the researches on the embryonic stem cells are being prohibited because of the destruction of the embryo then there are the chances of splitting the embryos.
There are the chances of genetic modification of the oocytes in such a manner that if fertilized they won’t produce a viable human being.
All currently available methods of harvesting stem cells from different sources and their research are the issues to be discussed ethically in respect to the human embryo and human life. To avoid the ethical issues there are new alternatives to the sources of the cells should be taken into the consideration. (Hug, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma, 2011)
To my personal views, the use of embryo to harvest the cells are totally unethical and public funds should not be used for this kind of anti-human act, though I appreciate the process of the research that has got the hope of development of many newer medical cures. But for that many available alternatives should be taken into consideration.
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