Ethics of Stem Cell Research

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Stem cell research represents a new opportunity for ethical thought and debate. Stem cells are primitive cells which have yet to specialize. Through proper coaxing, stem cells can be made to differentiate into usable body cells and eventually used for medical treatment. Though stem cell technology has been in development since the 1960’s, it was not until August of 2001, when then-president George W. Bush announced that federal funds could be allotted to embryonic stem cell research, that the issue became a hot political topic. The matter is argued with vehement fervor, but the quarrels are wrought with emotivism and partisanship more than actual valid and cogent arguments. In fact, stem cell research has a very broad range of ethical implications. The normative ethical theories, the abortion debate, and even business ethics all have a place in the discussion due to the different new moral challenges which are prompted by this blossoming technology.

The first task of dissecting this debate is to differentiate between the two types of stem cell research. The first is adult (also called somatic or germ-line) stem cell research and is generally accepted and endorsed by all groups. Taken from human bone marrow or other deep tissues, this type of research has already been used for years in the treatment of many diseases, most notably Leukemia. Even the Catholic Church supports adult stem cell research, going so far as to partner with certain groups to further adult stem cell research funding. The disagreement lies in embryonic stem cell research. In embryonic stem cell research, a human embryo is created and then destroyed in order to obtain the intended stem cells. The circumstances which make the embryonic cells more desirable are two-fold. First, technology for embryonic stem cell research is currently farther along than somatic cell research; and therefore, it is cheaper. The more important distinction is in the quality of the cells collected. Adult stem cells are multipotent, meaning they can only differentiate into a select few types of cells, whereas embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, giving them the ability to divide into many different types of cells in the body. Extremely early research has indicated that it may be possible to “reprogram” adult stem cells to be pluripotent to the same extent that embryonic stem cells are. These induced pluripotent cells may eventually make the debate moot, but the knowledge is so young and the process so expensive that many scientists do not currently see induced stem cell research as a viable economic option. With that possibly on the scientific horizon, the present moral question lies with whether it is ever permissible to destroy a human embryo in order to harvest the stem cells for scientific development and the application of medical treatments. The normative ethical theories-virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism-each purport to be objective approaches to ethical thought. As usual, deontology and utilitarianism will disagree on stem cell research. If we are to follow utilitarian John Mill and his support of the greatest happiness principle, embryonic stem cell research is not only morally permissible but mandated, regardless of the ethical standing of the embryo. This is due to the fact that more people would benefit from embryonic stem cell research than a destroyed embryo would suffer. Recent medical applications of stem cell research indicate that lupus now may be treatable by pluripotent stem cells, and there is evidence that multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease may all someday be treatable by embryonic stem cells. With this information, it seems that a utilitarian would almost have to support embryonic stem cell investigation. Deontology as presented by Immanuel Kant proceeds from the point of trying to achieve the categorical imperative. By this objective perspective we have a duty not to kill a person no...
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