The Controversy of Stem Cell Research

For years scientists have experimented, studied, and researched to find cures to numerous devastating diseases. It has been questioned whether many of those diseases will ever be cured. At the present time, the best, and possibly even the only way to develop a cure for those diseases can be found through the research of embryonic stem cells. Unfortunately, stem cell research is being hindered by people and organizations who are opposed to it. There are many moral issues behind this, and there are strong reasons on both sides.

First: perhaps it would be best to explain what a stem cell is. In the executive summary for an essay done by the Health and Human Services Department and the National Institutes of Health about the scientific progress and future directions of stem cell research, it explains stem cells as follows:
A stem cell is a special kind of cell that has a unique capacity to renew itself and to give rise to specialized cell types. Although most cells of the body, such as heart cells or skin cells, are committed to a specific function, a stem cell is uncommitted and remains uncommitted, until it receives a signal to develop into a specialized cell. Their proliferate capacity combined with the ability to become specialized makes stem cells unique. Researchers have for years looked for ways to use stem cells to replace cells and tissues that are damaged or diseased. Recently, stem cells have received much attention. What is “new” and what has brought stem cell biology to the forefront of science and public policy?

Stem cell research has many positive benefits to it. One of the world’s worst diseases, cancer, has gone a long time without a cure. Some people would even doubt that there could be a cure. Since stem cell research has emerged, though, many opinions on the cure for cancer have changed. Scientists now see, through the research of stem cells, the possibly for finding a cure for cancer. If that is true, why then, is it, that many people are opposed to stem cell research? The question, “Is an embryo a human being, or is it not?” is what Matt Moulton, an eccentric supporter of stem cell research, says is the reason for all of the controversy.

Why does it matter? Stem cells are taken from the embryo of what will become a human being, or in some peoples opinion, already is a human being. Even if it is a human being, what is the problem with taking a few cells? The embryonic would eventually develop into the testes or the ovaries. Hence, if the embryo ever fully developed, it would develop without those parts, which are essential parts of the human body. Of course, it all depends on whether one is correct in considering the embryo as a human or not. Even if it can be considered as human, would it not be worth it for what could be accomplished through the research of the stem cells? In the same executive summary as mentioned above, it gives an idea on what stem cell research can accomplish:

Stem cells may hold the key to replacing cells lost in many devastating diseases. There is little doubt that this potential benefit underpins the vast interest about stem cell research. What are some of these diseases? Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, chronic heart disease, end-stage kidney disease, liver failure, and cancer are just a few for which stem cells have therapeutic potential. For many diseases that shorten lives, there are no effective treatments but the goal is to find a way to replace what natural processes have taken away. For example, today, science has brought us to a point where the immune response can be subdued, so that organs from one person can be used to replace the diseased organs and tissues of another. But, despite recent advances in transplantation sciences, there is a shortage of donor organs that makes it unlikely that the growing demand for lifesaving organ replacements will be fully met through organ donation strategies.
From that passage, one could see the numerous benefits that come from stem cell research. Many would say that the benefits are enough that it would be worth risking the possibility of the embryo being considered a human being. The possibility of curing cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and many others is something that some would consider more valuable that the life of something that may not even be considered a human being.

Even so, there are still many who oppose it. In many ways, it is treading the same territory as the questions about abortion, but that is another topic. The morality of experimenting on part of what may someday be a human being is one of the biggest problems. There are many religious conflicts with this, as well. Questions that emerge about stem cell research are often times similar to ones about cloning, as much of the concept is similar.

But it all depends on how you view the idea. Are you ruining an embryo or a human? Stem cell research can also find the causes and possibly ways to prevent birth defects. So one could say, that by messing up a few babies, it is saving thousands. In many ways it is a question of putting the individual or the whole first. Is it wrong to sacrifice soldiers for the sake of a country? Is it wrong to sacrifice embryos for the sake of humanity?

Suppose scientist were wrong in their assumption that all of those diseases could be cured? Then they messed up a lot of embryos, or maybe even humans, all to no avail. Then a lot of embryos were sacrificed, and nothing was gained; the soldiers were sacrificed for the nation that lost the war. In that case, those who oppose stem cell research would have been right in opposing it.

Of course, no one will know until they try it. If nobody puts money into researching stem cells, and everyone is opposed to it, then no one will ever find out if it really can cure all of those diseases. If people do support stem cell research, though, then they will find out if it is possible to cure cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and so many others. If it is possible, society made a good choice; if it isn’t possible, society made a big mistake.

Who can say which is right and which is wrong?
Again supposing that embryos really are human. It’s a very moral question, there. Are you ruining what would develop into a human being, or are you ruining something that is merely an embryo, without any human attributes to it yet? Are you taking what would be a living, breathing, human being, and using a part of it to make tissue and organs for another human body, or is it just another embryo? Those questions may never be fully answered.

Compare it to this analogy. Looking back to the early nineteenth century America, back when African-Americans were mostly in slavery. White slave owners used their slaves to do most of their work, while they sat back and made more money. The white slave owners were building the economy and keeping the fledgling nation financially secure. Of course, it didn’t matter that all of the wealth was gained at the expense of the slaves; because, after all, they were slaves, not people, right? Compare that to the research of stem cells. Scientists are taking the stem cells from the embryos, just to find a cure for some diseases; it doesn’t matter, of course, because their just embryos, not humans. It all depends on how one looks at it. That could be an acceptable excuse, and it could not.

It all comes down to the simple fact that it cannot be decided which side is right. If the cures could be found through stem cell research, then perhaps it could be worth the loss. If the cures can’t be found, and all it really does is ruin a bunch of babies, then it was a mistake. At the current moment, not enough is known to decide which is right. In favor of continuing research on stem cells, the same executive summary from the NIH and the HHS states:

Predicting the future of stem cell applications is impossible, particularly given the very early stage of the science of stem cell biology. To date, it is impossible to predict which stem cells— those derived from the embryo, the fetus, or the adult— or which methods for manipulating the cells, will best meet the needs of basic research and clinical applications. The answers clearly lie in conducting more research. So those who support it want more research, whereas those who oppose it don’t want to sacrifice any more embryos to do the research. Which one is right in their actions? Who could say?

Works Cited
Stem Cells: Scientific Progress and future research directions
Department of Health and Human Services June 2001

Stem Cell Research Foundation

AAAS/ICS Report on Stem Cell Research

Institute for Stem Cell research at the University of Edinburgh

Moulton, Matt. Personal Interview. 18 Dec. 2003