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Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Ethical Milestone in Medicine
“But is not He who created it for the sake of the sick body more than the remedy? And is not He who cures the soul, which is more than the body, greater?”
Writings of Paracelsus
With a myriad of medical advancements in the past century, our society now enjoys a considerably healthier life. Man’s decision to take life into his own hands has brought countless dividends, sparing millions of lives. As a result of science, nature no longer hacks away at our county’s population with the fatal blade of Polio, Smallpox and Whooping Cough. Yes, our nation is more apt than ever to combat disease, but the threat of more intricate diseases, such as cardiac disease and cancer, have taken the place of past epidemics. Stem cell research shows great promise for the treatment of these diseases, and many others through the replacement of sickly cells with healthy tissue. Much controversy has arisen from the implementation of human embryos, but considering that researchers utilize an embryo that is 3 to 5 days past conception, a mere cluster of cells, stem cell research is not murder but instead an ethical attempt to save lives.
Surely there is no controversy over the usefulness of stem cell replacement therapy, as so much could potentially be done with an understanding of regenerative cells. With the fruition of this knowledge doctors will be able to heal patients from the inside out, whether by “restoring damaged heart muscle tissue” or forming “insulin producing cells that eventually could be used for persons with diabetes” (National Institutes of Health). The ethical argument surrounding this frontier involves the material being used to produce these wonderful effects, the human cell itself.
Certainly there is a long, intricate chain of events that occurs before a tiny cell spawns a fully-functioning heart, and while rigorously taxing on one’s mental faculties, an understanding of the stem cell confirms that this research involves a negligible loss of human life. Stem cells are the empty, purposeless structures that later form specialized cells. These cells split into two main categories, the embryonic and the “adult”, or somatic stem cells. All living beings of all maturities have the latter of the cells, which create new tissue throughout life, but the former is found only in early life, and is the subject of stem cell research.
These young, undeveloped “stem” cells are indeed the initial building blocks of human life, but in the most basic and microscopic state, “[the embryo] has no consciousness, no self-awareness, no ability to feel love or pain” (Kinsley). A minor portion of the controversy surrounding stem cells concerns the manner in which they’re attained, as “most embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro” (National Institutes of Health), those created in a lab rather than in the female body. This origin may be cause for alarm to some, but is still a small cog in the controversial machine that is stem cell research. The grand, rooted conflict, the dividing line for those of differing philosophical, religious and cultural views, is that stem cell research involves the taking apart of an early human life form. No matter how simplistic that life may be, whether or not that life is significant at all, controversy arises because scientists are taking that life away.
The most common and most passionate critique is that human life begins absolutely at the moment of conception, that this science is a black and white murder of life, and therefore intolerable; such an assertion is often based on religious beliefs, and is therefore an extremely taut and rigid thread to attempt to unravel. This argument is indeed admirable, as these opponents are merely standing by their ideas of what is right and what is wrong, but that is exactly the problem; an unwavering, generalized belief that all life is sacred stomps out the subject at hand without close consideration. Because stem cell research is such a faceted subject it cannot be immediately overruled, there is no fine line between life and death in stem cell research, but instead a thick and convoluted web separating the right and the wrong, that cannot be cut by the single argument that “life begins at conception”.
Critics of human embryonic stem cell research may be sensible in expressing their apprehension of “playing God” with the lives of others, but such an argument falls short because the “life” at hand is so very undeveloped, so unrecognizable, and really, unimportant. When examining this frontier with an objective and unbiased eye it is clearly visible that stem cell benefits outweigh the consequences. Because stem cells make regenerative tissue possible, and therefore make life possible for otherwise doomed, fully-formed human beings, the loss of a small cluster of stem cells is negligible. Sure, it is sound footing to assert that man’s domain should not extend too far into the life of his fellow man, but such logic lacks merit in this case as the fellow man “consists of a few dozen cells” (Kinsley).
In taking apart the contents of an embryonic stem cell, while the act may technically be considered “killing”, a scientist is not depriving that little speck of life in any significant manner. The embryo itself is living, sure, but is not really alive in the sense of being conscious of its surroundings. Because the embryo has no mind, and therefore no perception of the world around it, the minute life form is merely leaving a world that it was never aware of in the first place. A three to five day old human embryo may be alive, but only in the vaguest sense of the word, comparative to the “somewhat alive” virus, being able to replicate when attached to a host, but otherwise resting dormant in a microscopic world. With such a small resemblance to the aware, noticeable life that exists in the visible world, stem cell research is an ethical frontier in the pursuit of medical advancements.
Considering the relative unimportance of life being dissected in human embryonic stem cells, that society therefore has so little to lose, and so very much to gain, research in this medical field should be heartily pursued. Because stem cells are able to develop into any number of specialized cells, a greater understanding and control of these amazing “tools” could revolutionize medicine. The mastery of embryonic human stem cells is essentially a mastery of the human body, in that the ability to synthesize new, congruent living tissue would allow for the replacement of worn down, malfunctioning organs and organ tissue. Many, many opportunities could be availed through this research, with natural applications for “Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis” (National Institutes of Health).
Controversy over human embryonic stem cell research has presided over the national consciousness for years and years. While critics may be fair in their respect for life and concerns over the execution of this medical procedure, this research is a morally sound venture. The minute embryos being utilized are of such a little resemblance to fully-formed human life, and of such relatively little importance, that all harm and loss is negligible. With such little consequence in procedure and profound possibilities, human embryonic stem cell research is an ethical mean to possibly save future lives.
Kinsley, Michael. “The False Controversy of Stem Cell Research.” Time. 23 May
2004. 21 May 2011.
“Stem Cells and Diseases.” 7 January 2011. The National Institutes of Health
Resource for Stem Cell Research. 21 May 2011.