Stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cell research, appears frequently in the news. Having followed this ongoing coverage and taken a general interest in the subject, we find that a number of pertinent issues often seem to go unaddressed. Our intent in writing this article is neither to attack nor defend the use of human embryonic stem cells in research. Rather, it is to draw attention to some difficult questions that are worth asking.
The generally acknowledged goal of embryonic stem cell research is a noble one: to cure disease and reduce human suffering. Using embryonic stem cells to reach this goal, however, raises ethical dilemmas for current and future research because embryonic stem cells are obtained through the destruction of human embryos.
This leads us to ask, “Is embryonic stem cell research violating human life?” The question of when human life begins is hotly contested. Varying theories argue that it begins at conception, implantation in the uterus, at a later point during or after the course of fetal development. Scientific evidence itself does not tell us at what point of development a fertilized egg becomes human. Ultimately, individuals make a judgment on the issue by combining scientific knowledge with beliefs about the nature of our humanity. Such beliefs tend to center around notions of the nature or existence of human souls and on the differences or lack thereof between humans and animals.
People may never agree on when life begins. Yet, while the issue remains largely unresolved, is it right simply to forge ahead in one direction or the other? What if the opposing position has it right? One side could be killing in the name of scientific progress or the other could be sacrificing the opportunity to cure innumerable terminal ailments for nothing.
While most people have probably recognized the dilemma, it seems that few are interested in resolving it. It is simpler to go on researching or protesting, while preserving the notion that the other side “just doesn’t get it.”Many people in our scientific and social communities have accepted embryonic stem cell research despite the unresolved debate. Because certain practices are already commonplace, people find it easier to accept them rather than question the current modus operandi. If embryos are being produced en masse for the purpose of in vitro fertilization, why not use the leftovers for research? If abortions are happening anyway, why not conduct experiments on the undesired fetuses? In addition, it’s easy to focus on the noble goals of research and claim that at any rate, the ends justify the means.
This approach merely avoids the ethical questions of the situation. If the use of embryonic stem cells destroys human life, what we achieve with them does not necessarily justify the act of their destruction.
Another major question concerning embryonic stem cell research is, “Where will it lead?” Embryonic stem cell research may mark the top of a slippery slope. If use of embryonic material is acceptable, what’s to stop researchers from treating the human body as no more than a subject for experimentation in the future? Granted, there are many intermediate steps between using embryonic stem cells and conducting arguably unethical research using mature humans for scientific reasons.
However, if a line is going to be drawn somewhere in between the two, who will determine its placement and how? If the debate around embryonic stem cell research remains unresolved how will we approach consequential ethical dilemmas in the future?
To bring things back to our beginning, we are not taking a stand in this article about whether embryonic stem cell research should continue or be terminated permanently. What we are trying to do is call attention to some ethical dilemmas facing us today in an effort to ensure that when advances are made, they are made ethically and will not spawn deeper problems in the future.
Ignoring such issues today, even if the resulting research eventually makes notable advances in clinical science, we will create a precedence for research that will lack proper ethical guidelines.