The benefits to society by the introduction of new medical technologies have been considerable. For example, the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics has significantly improved the well-being of people all over the globe. The science of stem cell treatments, potentially as or more significant than these other innovations, is beginning a new stage of exploration and growth that could be the forerunner of unprecedented cures and therapies. The present enthusiasm over prospective stem cell-produced remedies radiates from the new innovations of genetic biology. Though one cannot forecast the results from basic research, there is enough information available to suggest that a good deal of this enthusiasm is justified. This enthusiasm is not shared by those of the religious right or the current presidential administration. This faction is opposed to embryonic stem cell research which they claim as immoral and characterize as devaluing human life, much the same as does abortion, drawing a link between the two. This discussion will provide a brief overview of stem cell research and its benefits to society, the debate surrounding the issue and the arguments for continued research.
Definition of Stem Cells
Stem cells are basically the building block cells of a human being which are capable of becoming 210 different types of tissue. “Stem cells have traditionally been defined as not fully differentiated yet to be any particular type of cell or tissue” (Irving, 1999). Adult stem cells are found in minute numbers within most tissues, but the majority of stem cells can be obtained from the umbilical cord. A more precise term is “somatic stem cells” (Sullivan, 2004). There are numerous potential sources for stem cells. Embryonic stem cells originate from the inner cell of an early stage embryo. Embryonic germ cells can be collected from fetal tissue at a later stage of development. Adult stem cells can be obtained from mature tissues. “Even after complete maturation of an organism, cells need to be replaced. A good example (of adult stem cells) is blood, but this is true for muscle and other connective tissue as well, and may be true for at least some nervous system cells” (Chapman et al, 1999).
Many studies have been conducted by scientists in an effort to determine whether adult tissue stem cells have the similar developmental potential as do embryonic stem cells. The consensus of these studies has concluded that adult stem cells are not as viable as embryonic stem cells which possess a far greater potential and usefulness because, unlike adult stem cells, they have the ability to develop into practically all cells present in the body. Adult stem cells only have the ability to develop into a few cell types. In addition, embryonic stem cells divide unceasingly but adult stem cells do not which reduces their ability to develop into new types of cells. “Stem cells are of wide interest for medicine, because they have the potential, under suitable conditions, to develop into almost all of the different types of cells” (“Adult Stem Cells”, 2006).
Goals of research
The three main objectives given for pursuing stem cell research are obtaining vital scientific information about embryonic development; curing incapacitating ailments such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and for testing new drugs instead of having to use animals (Irving, 1999). Stem cell research is also expected to aid victims of stroke, spinal cord injuries, bone diseases and diabetes. The scientific techniques for obtaining stem cells could lead to unparalleled advances and even cures for these and other ailments.
Embryonic stem cells possess the ability to restore defective or damaged tissues which would heal or regenerate organs which have been adversely affected by a degenerative disease. Cell therapy has the very real potential to provide new cures for diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis and many other kinds of diseases. Cell therapy has also demonstrated a great potential to help repair and regenerate spinal cord injuries which would help paralyzed patients recapture lost body functions. The possibilities are limitless including greatly advancing the human lifespan because aging organs could be replenished. “We may even have the ability one day to grow our own organs for transplantation from our own stem cells, eliminating the danger of organ rejection” (“Future of Cell Therapy”, 2006).
Argument for use of aborted fetuses
The moral dilemma that surrounds the prohibition of aborted fetuses is the idea of abortion itself. The Bush administration has made it very clear that it is opposed to legal abortions, in at least most circumstances, and has transferred this ideology to its prohibition of embryonic stem cell research. The concept of scientific study of the next stage of development, the fetus, which resulted from an abortion, is unthinkable. This ideology of the administration reflects the minority opinion which opposes abortion and also reflects the majority opinion that is opposed to aborted fetuses of consenting parents being used for experimentation. This reality has no basis in reason. Why would those who claim to be ‘pro-choice’ want to waste the aborted tissue? For that matter, why would pro-lifers want to witness what they believe is a living being tossed away in vain? At least its ‘life’ could have meant something to humanity in a very real way. In 1999 alone, more than 850,000 abortions were performed in the U.S. (Elam-Evans et al, 2002).
Whatever moral or political position, the fact is, all these fetuses could have served advance scientific and medical knowledge in immeasurable ways. Those who believe they are taking the moral ground when it comes to the ‘unborn’ are perfectly willing to allow those who are breathing to suffer needlessly without hope of the possibility for quicker cure through the efforts of stem cell research. Abortion laws vary state by state but the vast majority allow for abortions to be performed at least through the second trimester, 24 weeks into the pregnancy. This limitation was derived from the neurological point of view, which conforms to our society’s distinctness for the death as the absence of a cerebral EEG (electroencephalogram) pattern. This same definition must therefore also define life as there are no alternatives to these two options. The presence of the EEG pattern of a fetus can be detected approximately 27 into weeks into the pregnancy. An embryo is referred to as a fetus at about seven to eight weeks following fertilization. At about four to five weeks, embryonic germ cells, about 2 mm long, are developing (Morowitz & Trefil, 1992).
The U.S. restricts the use of any new embryonic cells to be used. It has been suggested that only fetuses of stillbirths be used. However, the collecting of embryonic germ cells would be extremely challenging as there is only a small amount of time to collect these cells. There would also be problems using these cells for research as stillbirths might have resulted from a genetic irregularity. Embryonic germ cells can be derived from a five to eight week old fetus, four months prior to having an EEG pattern. (The distinction between embryo and fetus is the end of the 8th week) (Sullivan, 2004). Dr. John Gearhart, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University said of these cells, “It’s sort of like, the mother of all stem cells” (“Human Embryonic”, 1997).
More than half of European countries and others around the world such as Japan allow for embryonic stem cell research in various degrees. Australia followed the UK in allowing the use of tissue from aborted fetuses, with the parents’ consent, for scientific experimentation. “Here in Australia we would be allowed to use it [aborted fetus for embryonic research]. There would be no impediment to that” (Robotham & Smith, 2002). According to Health-Day, a daily news service reporting on consumer health, Swiss physicians at the University of Lausanne discovered that a two and a half-inch piece of skin from a fetus, which was aborted at 14 weeks, provided several million grafts that were used to treat burn victims. The study also found that skin cells from an aborted fetus healed burns faster than standard grafts. Patrick Hohlfeld, the prime author of the study said “the use of fetal skin has tremendous potential because taking just one skin graft gives you the potential to treat thousands of people” (Strode, 2005).
In the religious community, philosophies are somewhat varied. The Mormon Church is neutral regarding stem cell research although it opposes abortion with the possible exceptions of cases of incest, rape or danger to the mother’s health. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations supports research but only if it entails frozen embryos that remain unused from test-tube baby labs. Many Muslims consider that the most convincing moral argument for using embryos is that it could someday combat dread diseases. Representing Protestants, Conservative and Reform Jews and Unitarians amongst others, The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice encourages unimpeded rights to abortion. The coalition believes the medical potential justifies research that employs the test-tube leftovers or aborted fetuses. The Catholic Church instructs its followers that ‘the life of every human being is to be respected’ and it passionately opposes destroying embryos, whether by abortion or research. Eastern Orthodox and evangelical Protestant leaders generally concur. The California Council of Churches, however, “supports a $3 billion state program that involves stem cell harvesting through destruction of cloned embryos” (Ostling, 2005).
Religious zealots are again attempting to slow scientific advancement by advocating dogma over science and reason. Proponents of abortion rights and stem cell research recognize that if the moral status of embryos and fetuses is exclusively a religious matter, it should be kept in the private dominion of faith, not a matter of political debate. The moral majority is morally bankrupt on this issue. Political, not prudent considerations are the cause of the stifling of embryonic stem cell research. Inevitably, stem cell research will be commonplace and hopefully sooner than later but until then many people will continue to suffer with debilitating diseases and paralysis. Where is the morality in that? Who are these people that consider the life of a living human being less important than a four or five day-old embryo? It’s easy for these people to cling to false morals unless it affects them or their family directly. Advocates of stem cell research should do a better job of educating opponents so that government’s funds can be allocated to further this new science. If we, as a country can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on an unnecessary war that benefits no one, we can spend much less on research that will benefit us all.
- Chapman, Audrey; Frankel, Mark S.; & Garfinkel, Michele S. (1999). Stem Cell Research and Applications: Monitoring the Frontiers of Biomedical Research. American Association for the Advancement of Science and Institute for Civil Society.
- “Do Adult Stem Cells have the Same Capability as Embryonic Stem Cells?” (2006). Stem Cell Research Foundation. Clarksburg, Maryland.
- Elam-Evans, Laurie D.; Strauss, Lilo T.; Herndon, Joy; Parker, Wilda Y.; Whitehead, Sara; & Berg, Cynthia J. (2002). “Abortion Surveillance – United States, 1999.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control.
- “Human Embryonic Stem Cells Reported.” (1997). New Scientist. Program on Science, Technology and Society.
- Irving, Dianne N. “Stem Cell Research: Some Pros and Cons.” (1999). Written on request of Fr. Thomas King, S.J., Ph.D., Department of Theology, Georgetown University; President, University Faculty For Life, for their newsletter, UFL Pro-Vita,
- Morowitz, H. J. & Trefil, J. S. (1992). The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ostling, Richard N. (2005) “A Balance of Benefits in Stem Cell Debate: Divisions Among Religious Groups Suggest Theological Thicket in Life-or-Life Questions.” Washington Post. p. B09.
- Robotham, Julie & Smith, Deborah. (2002). “Abortions Set to Fuel Stem Cell Research.” The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Strode, Tom. (2005). “Life Digest: New Stem Cell Research Encouraging but Problematic; Researchers Find New Use for Aborted Babies.” Baptist Press News.
- Sullivan, Patricia. (2004). “Frequently Asked Questions: Do Stem Cells Come From Aborted Fetuses?” International Society for Stem Cell Research.
- “What is the Future of Cell Therapy?” (2006). Stem Cell Research Foundation. Clarksburg, Maryland.