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Debate: Stem cell research

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Should stem cell research be permitted?

Background and context

The manipulation of the human embryo and the application of cloning technology are relatively novel developments. Research involving human embryos has only been permitted in the United Kingdom since 1990. In 2001 the United Kingdom Parliament narrowly approved the cloning of human embryos for a limited range of research purposes. In August 2001 President George Bush is reported to be contemplated a similar degree of freedom for US biotechnology programs. The issue was thrust upon the public conscience by the landmark achievement of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh in 1997. The successful cloning of ‘Dolly’ the sheep from an adult cell utilised the technique known as ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’. The nucleus from a somatic cell was fused with an unfertilised egg from which the nucleus had been removed. Human ‘therapeutic’ cloning concerns the applications of nuclear transfer technology that do not lead to the creation of an entire human. The scientific object is the cloning of embryos in order to produce identical cell lines, the removal of which destroys the embryo. The passage of an electric current across each cell should allow development as a specified somatic or body cell. The purported medical benefits reside in the possibility of bodily repair. Neurons killed by degenerative diseases such as Huntingdon’s Chorea or Alzheimer’s Disease could be replaced by genetically identical cells. Transplant operations are currently hindered by the risk of potentially fatal rejection of the transplanted organ. Cloned cell lines could eliminate this hazard by operating as a ‘solvent’ between the foreign organ and the body. Removal of the rejection reaction may facilitate the process of ‘xeno-transplantation’ whereby animal organs can be used in human bodies. One of the ethical focuses of this debate concerns the loss of thousands of embryos, and thus the creation and destruction of future human life, which is inevitable in any programme of research or treatment involvin

Contents

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Argument #1

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Yes

The motivation for all medical research is consequentialist (i.e. primarily seeking beneficial outcomes). Although the research procedure will involve the creation and destruction of thousands of embryos, the resulting benefits will outweigh the cost in human material. Once the research goals have been achieved, the use of embryos in the treatment phase can be greatly reduced. The likely consequences of curing people of fatal neurodegenerative diseases, and ensuring the success of transplant surgery are worth the cost.


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No

There is no moral guidance provided by merely hoping that a good final consequence will result. Medical research should be governed by moral concerns, and specifically the duty owed by every human being towards another. However much sympathy we feel for sufferers of terminal diseases, we cannot tolerate the use of human embryos as means to the end of The stem cell research project is inherently contradictory ; lives would be created and then destroyed, in order to save another life. There is no overall good consequence when life must always be destroyed.


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Argument #2

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Yes

We already accept the creation and destruction of ‘spare’ embryos for cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. IVF facilitates the creation of human life. Stem cell treatments will allow the saving of existing human life. The infertile will still survive. The sufferers of Huntingdon’s Chorea, or those who urgently require an organ transplant, will not.Thus the moral argument in favor of allowing stem cell treatment is even stronger than in respect of IVF.




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No

The loss of embryos in IVF is a ground for condemning IVF treatment. It is not a reason for allowing another procedure that will sacrifice much more potential life. Moreover, IVF is already a technology that is the number of embryos that are ‘wasted’ annually by IVF is far in excess of the number predicted by scientists when the practice was made legal. The Nuremberg and Helsinki Declarations were drafted in order to protect humans from the horrors of experimentation envisaged by Nazi eugenicists. The same duty is owed to pre-human subjects.



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Argument #3

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Yes

The creation, storage and destruction of embryos can be strictly controlled. In the United Kingdom, the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act 1990 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) require the licensing of each project involving the use of embryos.The 1998 report of the HFEA, ‘Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine’, was informed by the views of the national scientific community and was crucial to the passing of legislation to permit stem cell research in the United Kingdom.There should be no fear of ‘Frankenstein science’.




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No

The value of scientists regulating other scientists is highly questionable. The HFEA is a body composed of experts in the field of embryology and is accountable to Parliament only by the means of annual reports.The much publicised case of Diane Blood, in which she sued the HFEA for the return of gametes that were being stored on her behalf, suggests that the body is distant from public feeling and subject to proper review only by the courts.The media fears of mad scientists free to manipulate and destroy human life may be overstated. However, there is a significant risk that research projects will destroy thousands of embryos with little monitoring and with even less scientific gain.




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Argument #4

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Yes

We must appreciate that the moral status of the embryo is distinct from that of the foetus. In the United Kingdom, the embryo is not recognised as having any rights at law until the fourteenth day after creation, when the ‘primitive streak’ becomes visible.There would seem to be no reason to recognise that life begins at the stage of embryo creation. The accepted test for clinical death is an absence of brain stem activity. Yet the foetus first acquires a functioning brain six weeks after the embryo has been created.We cannot condone the ‘wastage’ of human embryos. However, we must be wary of regarding the loss of an embryo as the loss of human life.




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No

The embryonic human should have the same moral status as the foetus or the child or the adult.The primitive streak was chosen by the Warnock Committee as a purely arbitrary point after which experimentation on human embryos would become unlawful.There is no accepted physiological point at which the embryo suddenly becomes more ‘human’ than before.The fact that the embryo looks different from the foetus and from the adult is not enough to prove that the embryo is not a human being. It would be remarkable to predicate humanity on physical appearance. The status of a human being does not depend upon whether he is physically familiar or attractive.




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Argument #5

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Yes

Human embryos cannot be regarded as equivalent to human beings on the ground that they could develop into adults. Between fifty and seventy per cent of embryos are lost naturally through failing to implant in the wall of the uterus. The potential of an embryo to develop does not itself make it human. As Peter Singer has observed, this approach would mean that every sperm and ovum should be treated as microscopic human beings. Moreover, until approximately 14 days after fertilisation, the embryo can split into two or more genetically identical embryos. How can we consider an embryo to be an ‘individual’ that lives or dies, when it could naturally develop into twins or become nothing at all?




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No

The proper test of humanity should concern whether the embryo has the potential to organise itself into a ‘living human whole’.Every embryo has this capacity. The sperm and the ovum do not have the potential of self-organisation. Together these gametes have the slight potential of achieving fertilisation.The fact that embryos are lost naturally does not imply that is morally appropriate for scientists to destroy embryos. As Paul Ramsey has stated, man has no right per se to mimic the actions of nature. For example, the possibility that a rock might fall naturally and hit my friend, does not mean I have a right to throw a rock and hit my friend.




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Argument #6

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Yes

The requisite research cannot be achieved without the use of the stem cells that are found in embryos. Research into adult cells has yielded very little progress on account of the difficulty of ‘reprogramming’ an adult cell to develop as the particular neuron or tissue cell that is required.It is possible that greater understanding of human cells will increase the utility of adult cells in the future. For the present, resources should be concentrated on stem cell research.




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No

There is no necessity of utilising embryo stem cells. Research has continued for many years into the use of adult stem cells. These cells are replaceable and could be used for the purposes of treatment and research without the destruction of embryos.




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