Stem cell research is a touchy subject for most people: scientists usually take stem cells from a 3-5 day old embryo and transplant it into another person’s body. This leads to possibly curing someone of their life-threatening diseases, but it also results in killing the baby who had its cells taken away. Not only is this an ethical problem, but through social and cultural research, I have found out how other countries use or do not use stem cells, religious conflicts, and potential issues with stem cells, leading to reasons we should or should not conduct stem cell research.
When researching anything through a social or cultural lens, there is always something from an ethical perspective thrown in. The ethical problem with stem cell research lies in many different questions. One of the biggest issues in stem cell research is the fact that no one knows when life begins, whether at fertilization, in the womb, or at birth. Next, is an embryo the same thing as a child? Does said embryo have rights? Is the destruction of this embryo/child justified if it provides a cure for these patients? Since we can grow stem cells indefinitely in a dish, and in theory grow a human, is the embryo really being destroyed? (Genetic). Different political groups, societies, religions, and cultures have their own ideas, but very few of them are the same as another. Some believe that embryos have rights because they could end up being a world leader, or they could solve a some kind of world issue that would be devastating without that person (Powell). Some base their arguments off of the fact that within 14 days of being conceived, a blastocyst has no neural tissue (Shapiro 204). Others believe that you can’t base your decision on stem cells off of a hope that you’ll save some savior.
Other countries have different plans on how or if they should use stem cells. In February 2004, Dr Hwang Woo-suk and his colleagues in South Korea reported that they had successfully cloned 30 human embryos, from which they had extracted stem cell lines. In May 2005, Hwang and his team published a paper claiming they had made 11 patient-specific cell lines using donated eggs and the DNA from people suffering from diseases such as juvenile diabetes and spinal cord injury. However, both of these papers have now been shown to contain fraudulent data and have been retracted by the publisher, Science magazine” ( Corrigan 1). This is an example of how Countries may lie to try to become more dominant than another. South Africa was the first African country with a stem cell bank. They still had reproductive cloning banned, but they were giver permission to study therapeutic cloning (Liu). India has a successful industry in stem cell banking. This is where stem cells are used to help treat future medical problems. The Indian government has ruled that reproductive cloning should be banned, but therapeutic cloning should be permitted. With all of the guidelines put in place, there has only been the approval of bone marrow transplants (Liu). Singapore is “Asia’s stem cell center” with 40+ research groups in the country. They are an important player in the biomedical field, and they use host incentives to find scientists to come to them. You can use embryos no more than two weeks old for therapeutic purposes which is a great incentive for these top scientists (Liu). Belgium banned reproductive cloning but will allow you to clone embryos for therapeutic reasons. Belgium was recognized as an enthusiast of stem cell research, and scientists extracted cell line from cloned embryos back in 2005 (Liu). France does not allow reproductive cloning or the creation of embryos for research, but they have tried opening a five-year window to allow stem cell research on imported surplus embryos from vitro fertilization treatments. Then laws would expand leading to the ability to produce stem cell lines from extra embryos (Liu). Spain was the fourth country in Europe to allow therapeutic cloning. They created Europe’s third cell bank and made multiple research centers for stem cells and other forms of regenerative medicine (Liu). Sweden, like many other countries, will allow therapeutic cloning, but not reproductive cloning. They have a great biomedical industry, and have made multiple stem cell banks (Liu). “The United Kingdom has long been a major player in bioscience and has been heralded as Europe’s leader in stem cell research. Indeed, Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut and his team created the world’s first successfully cloned animal, Dolly the sheep” (Liu). “Britain became the third country in the world to allow scientists to clone human embryonic stem cells explicitly for research purposes through somatic nuclear transfer. The following year, a team of British scientists was the first in the world to successfully clone blastocysts, or early-stage embryos. In May 2008, the British Parliament voted to allow researchers to conduct experiments involving animal-human hybrid embryos, known as chimeras”(Liu). Most of the countries allowing stem cell research believe that it can be very beneficial for therapeutic purposes, but they do not believe in using it for reproductive cloning, which has been tried in cases like Dolly the sheep. However, Israel allows cloning, but only if it is for reproductive purposes, not therapeutic. Israel is where stem cell research originated, this is because in the 1960s, the first stem cell was taken from blood in Israel (Liu).
Religions base their stem cell opinions on their ideas of when you are considered living. For instance, Christians believe that life is created at contraception, Jews believe that a human is created 40 days after conception, and Muslims believe a human is created 120 days after conception (Powell). The different beliefs on when you become alive lead to problems on stem cell research. Jews and Muslims believe stem cell research is ok, but Roman Catholics and other Christians believe otherwise (Powell). This is all because of the time gaps from when humans are created. Most stem cells used are not after 40 days of conception which leads to the Jews and Muslims not having an issue because technically you haven’t taken a life. Through Catholicism and Christianity, it is believed that no matter how early on, if an egg has been fertilized there is a human life.
Lastly, stem cell research has its own problems. Because of the limited research and resources available, only a small sliver of the world’s population, mostly whites and some asians, will be positively impacted by stem cells. This leaves other minorities and races stuck realizing that these promised therapies will not work so well for them (Entine). The issue is because of the fact that where we received the stem cells from, almost all of the stem cells were taken from US, Swedish, and Israeli fertility clinics. 49/64 stem cell lines were taken from white couples and the other 15 were from South and East Asia. That is a problem because our bodies reject things from different populations as foreign. Also, people with stem cell transplants must take drugs to suppress their immune system which can cause a whole new list of problems before you even look at the risks of stem cells. (Entine). It will be very difficult to treat diseases with stem cells according to a Harvard molecular and cellular biologist, Douglas Melton. Melton has stated that ‘Even 100 good lines will likely be inadequate to treat our genetically diverse population without encountering immune rejection.” (Entine).
Philip Clayton, a visiting professor of science and religion at Harvard, explains how stem cell research is one of the most controversial topics of our time (Powell). There are so many things that can positively affect our society through stem cells, but are we as a society ready to deal with the social and cultural issues produced by this research?
- Corrigan, Oonagh, et al. Ethical Legal and Social Issues in Stem Cell Research and Therapy a Briefing Paper from Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park. 2nd ed., Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park, 2006.
- Entine, Jon, and Sally Satel. “Inserting Race Into the Stem Cell Debate.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Sept. 2001, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2001/09/09/inserting-race-into-the-stem-cell-debate/80f560ec-6705-409b-be7a-cd163adeb54d/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9d1df1164925.
- Genetic Science Learning Center. “The Stem Cell Debate: Is It Over?” Learn.Genetics, 10 July 2014, www.learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/stemcells/scissues/
- Liu, Joseph. “Stem Cell Research Around the World.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 7 Mar. 2013, www.pewforum.org/2008/07/17/stem-cell-research-around-the-world/
- Powell, Alvin. “Stem Cells, through a Religious Lens.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 22 Mar. 2007, www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/03/stem-cells-through-a-religious-lens
- Shapiro, Robyn S. Bioethics and the Stem Cell Research Debate. National Council for the Social Studies, 2006.