What is Bioethics About?
Being the philosophical study of the ethical controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine, bioethics is concerned with the protection from any field which may endanger the dignity of human life. It is therefore directly related to stem cell research when considering the use of embryonic stem cells.
The ethical debate centred on research involving the creation, use and destruction of such stem cells is known as the stem cell controversy. Some opponents to the research argue that the use of embryonic stem cell is none other than the start of a “slippery slope” to reproductive cloning, whereas medical researchers in the field argue that it is necessary to pursue such research because a significant medical potential could result from the technologies obtained and that it would be better to donate excess embryos obtained from in vitro fertilisation for the use of embryonic stem cell research than to simply throw away a living potential for medical progress. This in turn clashes with the arguments of members in the pro-life movement, who argue in favour of the protection of human embryos.
As with the present state of technology, the creation of a human embryonic stem cell line requires the destruction of a human embryo. This has raised a large number of controversial issues between medical researchers and members of the pro-life movement, who see the embryo as an early stage of human life. From their point of view, embryonic stem cell research violates the sanctity of life and is equivalent to homicide. Many also believe, (often due to religious influence) that human life is sacred and therefore cannot be tampered with together with supporting the belief that human life begins at the moment of fertilisation. Many medical researchers on the other hand, support the belief that embryos are not equivalent to human life as they are not yet capable of surviving outside the mother’s womb. Others argue that eighteen per cent of zygotes do not implant after conception and therefore, far more embryos are lost due to chance than are proposed to be taken for stem cell research or treatment. Many individuals also believe that human life only begins when the heart starts beating (Approximately 5 weeks after fertilisation) and cranial activity begins to be observed. (This has been detected at 54 days after conception) This argument is central to the different opinions of medical researchers and pro-life movements and often governs the decision to consider the potential for embryonic stem cell research to provide treatments and possibly cures for currently fatal sicknesses and conditions, worthy of overriding the concern for the destruction of a potential human. Among the treatments related to stem cell research, scientists have found that such research may result in breakthroughs related to treatment from Parkinson’s disease, spinal chord injuries, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Further Ethical Issues
Another major ethical issue related to stem cell research involves the combination of embryonic stem cell and cloning techniques in a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, which results in the formation of an embryo which is a genetic clone of the donor of the nucleus. The embryo obtained would then be induced to form the organ required by the body of the donor, so allowing an organ with identical surface antigens to other organs in his or her body to be obtained and omitting the risk that the organ is rejected. This raises serious ethical issues since the embryo generated in this case is actually created for research or therapeutic purposes, and this raises a wider range of objections, in that a potential life is created for a specific purpose. Also of issue is the purpose of this cloning, in that a potential human life is generated for the sake of tissue transplantation. It has been noted that if inserted into a willing mother, the embryo cloned for tissue transplantation could be allowed to develop into a human being. This raises further ethical issues regarding the loss of the sanctity of life during the reproductive cloning of humans.
A third ethical issue related to stem cell research concerns the traffic and marketing of organs. Regarding this, it is argued that if processes such as somatic cell nuclear transfer are pursued, the resulting abundance of healthy organs may result in marketing and illegal trafficking of organs and other body parts. This would be a serious violation of the sanctity of life and is therefore argued against by the majority of ethicists.