Dr. James Mayall
Ethics in Action
01 April 2010
The Ethical Implications of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Stem cell is defined by Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary as, “one of the human body’s master cells, with the ability to grow into any one of the body’s more than 200 cell types (Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary, 2000).” The ethical implications of stem cell research; particularly with regards to embryonic stem cell research, has become an increasingly popular topic of debate in recent years. Medical experts, religious leaders, and politicians alike all share strong opinions on the matter. Although debates around stem cell research come from varying perspectives, emphasizing differing points of contention, it seems that the controversy surrounding stem cell research comes at the intersection of two primary opposing viewpoints: the high esteem for human life and the right to it, and the desire to alleviate human suffering. While these two ideas are not in themselves contradictory, in this particular case it is nearly impossible to satisfy one without violating the other. Stem cells show potential for many different areas of health and medical research, and studying them can help us understand how they transform into the astounding array of specialized cells that make us what we are. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are caused by problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to recognize and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions. Despite the fact that embryonic stem cell research is consistently pushing the limits of possibility for disease prevention and treatment, it is no less problematic in its moral assumptions (National Institute of Health, 2009). The discovery, isolation, and culturing of human embryonic stem cells has been described as one of the most significant breakthroughs in biomedicine of the century. This description would be warranted by virtue of the biological uniqueness of these cells alone, and their ability to self-renew infinitely while retaining a remarkable capacity to differentiate into any form of cell tissue (Womens Health, 2007). Dr. Maurice Rickard from the International and Comparative Social Policy Group has stated, “It is somewhat of an irony that the discovery of cells with such a tremendous potential for improving and prolonging our own lives, should bring with it some of the most trenchant and intractable questions about the value of life itself (National Institute of Health, 2009).” Issues about the value of life emerge here in perhaps their most stark and poignant form in the question of whether life for those already existing should be improved at the seeming expense of a possible human life that has just come into being. What the most ethically justified response to this sort of question is far from obvious. It is not immediately apparent to rationalize what should count as the appropriate criteria for assessing possible responses to it. It is even debatable and questionable to define the correct ideas and jargon that are needed to frame fundamental questions; however, it would be remiss to fail to engage with these questions in a manner that is commensurate with their depth, complexity, and importance. The possibility of destructive embryo research, particularly embryonic stem cell research, presents us with a moral problem because it appears to bring into tension two fundamental moral principles that we esteem very highly: one principle makes us value the high esteem for human life and the right to it, and the second principles concentrates on the prevention and alleviation of human suffering. Accordingly, both principles apparently cannot simultaneously be respected in the case of embryonic stem cell research. The question then is which principle should be given precedence in this conflict situation. Should we give...