Embryonic stem cell research involves the seeking of cures for various chronic diseases by using special cells from human embryos obtained from three to five-day-old embryos. The unique ability of embryonic stem cells to develop into any of the 220 cell types found in the human body lies in the fact that embryonic stem cells are pluripotent(Kao, Chuang, Chen, & Kuo, 2008).The pluripotency quality makes it possible for cells to differentiate into all the organs, tissues and organs in human beings the main reason why researchers promote the development of embryonic stem cells into specific unipotent cells that can be used as treatment after being cultured and grown. This quality makes them not only versatile but also very easy to grow in a laboratory compared to stem cells harvested from an adult(Kao, Chuang, Chen, & Kuo, 2008).From breakthroughs in the embryonic stem cell research, there is hope that cures for debilitating and chronic conditions such as blindness, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease will be found, good news to patients and their families. The breakthroughs also have the potential to shine light on the groundbreaking path in the discovery of not only cures but also causes of many human conditions.
A significant political and moral debate surrounds the concepts surrounding embryonic stem cell research, making the top political agenda at both the state and federal levels. The ethical dilemma is such that stem cell research evokes the same moral issues from opponents, some of whom are religious leaders, which the issue of abortion evokes. Opponents fuel their end of the debate by suggesting that scientists can employ other ways in the quest of their goals that does not involve interfering with human embryos, such as pursuing adult stem research that is non-controversial. Proponents on the other hand hold their end of the debate by asserting that using embryos for research has no alternatives at this time and that unlike abortion, embryonic stem cell research only destroys a few hundred embryos as opposed to the destruction of millions of human embryos by abortion.
This paper investigates the political debate surrounding stem cell research in order to shine more light on why various groups and people are split on the issue where some favoring stem cell research that has the potential to find cure in the medical field while others would rather avoid the destruction of potential life found in human embryos.
Politics Surrounding Stem-Cell Research
In the United States, there are no federal laws that put restrictions on the research of embryonic stem cells. There are however, some states where the destruction or creation of human embryos for the purposes of medical research is prohibited such as Indiana, Arkansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Michigan, and Louisiana(Vestal, 2008). Federal funding towards research that concerns embryonic stem cell is greatly favored by most democratic politicians at the national level with the republican politicians split over the issue(Robertson, 2010). The biggest issue in the United States over embryonic stem cell research remains the issue of funding where the principal question is if the federal government should fund the research(States, 2013). For as long no federal funding goes into the research, the government in the U.S. allows corporate laboratories, state and private universities and non-profits to pursue the research in states that have not placed any restrictions(Vestal, 2008). To unlock federal funding for embryonic stem research, former president George Bush vetoed bipartisan bills in 2006 and 2007 but the stalemate in Washington persisted, moving the debate to state capitals(Okie, 2006). For this legislation allowing funding from the federal government to go into stem cell research using embryos that fertility clinics have marked for disposal, Barack Obama as the senator for Illinois voted in favor in 2005(Varnee, 2009). The then Senator of Arizona, John McCain also voted in favor of federal funding going into research that would use embryos marked for disposal from fertility clinics and also for adult stem cell research(Robertson, 2010).
In the beginning, most opponents of the stem cell research were drawn from the remobilized opponents of abortion from around 1973 when the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion was given by the U.S. Supreme, who regrouped on the basis that stem cell research constitutes the destruction of human life(Okie, 2006). The first time stem cell research funding was ever approved was by President Bill Clinton, two decades from 1973 and the funding was limited to surplus embryos from fertility clinics(Robertson, 2010). The first state to make investments in stem cell research was New Jersey in early 2004. In November of 2014, voters in California approved a bond measure of $3 billion to fund stem cell research making the state of California the second state to invest in that area of research(Varnee, 2009).
The good news for studies in stem cells is that even if funding from the federal government is not forthcoming because Congress creates restrictions or because of a poorly performing economy with increased competition for federal resources, there is a clear indication of investment from private and state funding.
Crossroads of Religion and Politics
In relation to embryonic stem cell research, varying opinions are held and advanced by different religious groups. For many Christian groups including the Catholic Church, conception marks the beginning of life, which makes the destruction of human embryos equivalent to homicide the argument being, human embryos constitute human beings even if they are obtained in vitro. For the reason that human embryos are considered human beings, this implies that they have rights including the right to life from the minute they begin to exist, thus deserving respect and the preservation of their dignity.Be that as it may, there are other religious groups such as the more-liberal Christian groups and the Jewish groups that embrace and support embryonic stem cell research, while others decline from taking a stand.
The Islamic religion for instance, believes that an embryo is not yet a human life until it is entered by the soul, a process that takes place between 40 days to 120 days after conception. This belief is similar to that of the Jews who also believe that it takes about 40 days after conception for an embryo to become a human(Vestal, 2008).Embryonic and adult stem cell research is supported by Judaism and the Presbyterian Church, two of the most permissive religious groups, for therapeutic and medical purposes. The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention form two of the most restrictive religious groups on this matter by opposing embryonic stem cell research because it destroys human embryos but encourage the alternative ways that do not lead up to the destruction of the human embryo.
According to Agha & Hayani (2008), Islam holds the position that human attainments should not only be aligned to God’s will, but should also be confined within the laws and limits set by God. Any attempts that appear to upset the balance of creation are seen as arrogant and aimed at disregarding God’s equilibrium. Feelings of superiority are frowned upon and discouraged, which condemns any new knowledge that does not seem to comply with the considerations of God’s balance. Equity and justice of all humanity are a priority according to the religion of Islam and the recommendation is that knowledge should be used to develop political senses that address issues that arise in those areas. In Islam, the Quran and the Sunnah have set forth a wide-ranging ethical foundation and advice that political senses should be linked to this foundation. Since knowledge acquisition is perceived as a form of worship, the concepts of mercy, compassion, and benefits to humanity should be central to any research that touches on the sensitive domain of life enhancement(Agha & Hayani, 2008). With reference to the teachings of Islam, the benefits obtained from the application of embryonic stem cell research would be the determining factor of whether the research is ethical and acceptable in the religion.
Expansion of Ethical and Policy Dialogue to Address Fears
Addressing the subject of stem cell research as a series of innovations, Dresser (2010) recognizes the need to support it by expanding both policy and ethical frameworks. The frameworks would be built on the pillars of ethical concepts of social justice, scientific integrity, and truth telling especially in the support of the human embryonic stem cell research from the federal government and the debates on those issues(States, 2013). The author suggests that these frameworks be more responsive to the fears of stakeholders most of whom are in the dark, by shedding light not only the promises but also the possible threats of the research to human population and the environment they live in. This would involve defining the ethical concerns that surrounds the research and consequent innovations while inviting stakeholders to bring their concerns to a public discourse where the complex ethical issues can be addressed.
Beyond the ethical moral status of developing human life embryonic stem cell research presents numerous policy, legal and ethical questions such as why high priority in research funding decisions is given to treating and understanding chronic diseases of aging(Shannon, 2001). Issues regarding the exaggeration of the promise that this research can deliver and comparisons with other failed attempts at revolutionizing the practice of medicine such as gene therapy can be objectively addressed in a supportive environment that views stem cell research as innovation(Solter, 2006). The endorsement of retrieval and use of stem cells from a variety of sources, the safety of use of human subjects and animal stem cell research that does not subject experimental animals to cruelty also form part of the ethics debate. This approach of expanding framework would ensure that people that hold dissenting opinions are respected in accordance with the principles of deliberative democracy that should be central to the debates. In light of the misleading and simplistic positions held by conservative and liberal advocates on human embryonic stem cell research, an expanded ethical and policy framework will be able to take into consideration the complexities that public discussions fail to accommodate(Dresser, 2010).
The Future of Stem-Cell Research
Scientists and advocates from both sides of the debate are beginning to see the possibility of stem cells harvesting that does not destroy the embryos; a reality that will be made possible as the prospects for cures moves closer to reality and as the speed of this innovative research increases. The news that researchers had succeeded at transforming ordinary human skin cells into those that shared similar properties to those of embryonic cells in 2007 is one illustrative event that the great debate on the destruction of human embryos can find a middle ground(Vestal, 2008). With people moving beyond divisive debates, more constructive debates and approaches can be adopted as scientists explore the transforming of adult stem cells into pluripotent cells. Despite this great discovery, there are no guarantees that this process could work, and as such, there is an active indication from scientists that embryonic stem cell research should not be abandoned and should actually be continued.
The extraction of stem cells from human embryos is illegal in Italy and Germany, although the research on stem cells obtained from other parts of the world is permitted to scientists. The Netherlands, Spain, Greece, France, Finland, and Denmark allow their scientists to obtain stem cells from excess embryos that are planned for destruction by fertility clinics. Stem cell research is banned in all its forms in Lithuania, Poland, Ireland, and Austria, while Belgium, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are the only countries in Europe that allow for the study of embryonic stem cell studies in all its forms(Vestal, 2008).
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