Stem Cell Research: Is the Risk Worth the Reward?

In 2001, President George Bush endorsed very limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Today, proponents of the cause say this is not, and will never be, enough to efficiently make productive medical progress in the field. Opponents say that any funding at all is immoral and an inappropriate use of tax-payer’s dollars. Layered and controversial, this issue has pitted the scientific community against religious leaders and deeply divided the American public as people grapple for some concrete boundaries in this morally hazy and liminal space.

Essentially, a stem cell—found in the human embryo—is a generic or “undifferentiated” cell that has the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body: lung cells, kidney cells, heart cells. In their research, scientists endeavor to control completely the development of these cells. If they were able to manipulate a group of stem cells into pancreas cells, for instance, we might be able to save thousands from the quick and painful death almost surely wrought by pancreatic cancer. Indeed, scientists hope, and many are convinced, that stem cells could unlock the secret to cures for legions of terrible diseases, from crippling cancers and heart disease to even degenerative brain diseases, like Lou Gerig’s and Alzheimers.

Because harvesting stem cells effectively destroys the embryo, however, the debate over embryonic stem-cell research has become embroiled in the abortion debate. Opponents argue that such harvesting is wrong because it destroys human life, and many maintain, is tantamount to “playing god”—a game which, they argue, we neither have the judgment nor the right to play. Supporters contest, however, that the embryos in question—mostly surplus from fertility clinics— were going to be destroyed anyway and there is no harm at all in taking advantage of our resources, especially if it means possibly saving thousands with newfound cures for previously debilitating and/or fatal diseases. Indeed, proponents of stem-cell research argue that the relative risk of infringing on a moral gray area is far outweighed by the possible rewards stem-cells could offer in terms of clinical breakthrough, medical miracles.

While some scientists, as a way around the abortion issue, have attempted to use adult stem-cells—found in bone marrow—for similar causes, the results are not promising; adult stem cells, it seems, are far less malleable and much harder to manipulate than those found in human embryos. Concordantly, in a recent bioethical debate at Harvard, molecular biologist Kevan Eggan acknowledged that “adult stem cell research is important and must go forward," but maintained that embryonic stem-cell research possessed higher potential for real scientific breakthroughs.

And ultimately—barring privately funded radical research—we are talking about embryos produced in fertility clinics that are being discarded as surplus anyway, or, alternatively, embryos cultured in laboratories with the express function of harvesting cells; a child is not being deprived of life, the embryos in question are slated to be destroyed no matter what they are used for. In this light, it seems clear that, as Eggan insists, “the moral obligation we have to treat diseases and relieve suffering outweighs any obligation we may have to the human embryo.”


John Galt said...

While compelling to certain viewpoints, this argument is nothing new to the opponents of embryonic stem cell research and they'd be unlikely to think much of it.

If you view the situation as purely utilitarian then sure, stem cell research gets an obvious green light. It has huge potential for helping people and however you view the mean of research, they are nowhere near as valuable as even the probable results.

But the utilitarian viewpoint says nothing to those who believe there is a _moral_ problem with using stem cells in research. If you believe that destroying an embryo is tantamount to murder, trying to justify stem cell research by a weighted measure of cost and benefit fails - it is too hard to predict how many stem cells would be "killed" before cures would be found, and how fast cures might be found through alternative means. Some might even just have moral compunctions against killing a hundred people to let a million live longer.

Even the argument for use of stem cells slated for disposal in clinics fails in this light: to someone who believes the above moral principle the clinic argument is equivalent to saying it is okay to experiment on people on death row, just because they will be killed anyway.

While do I support stem cell research, I don't know what this argument hopes to accomplish. Most opposition to stem cell research stems from a difference in moral axioms. We must debate those if we wish to reach a conclusion on this issue.

mmd said...

While this argument is not new, neither is it trivial as is evidenced by the growing numbers of people who support stem cell research. According to a poll taken by CBS in 2005, 58% of all those polled supported embryonic stem cell research, which was an increase of 8% from the same poll conducted in 2004. While this poll is admittedly over a year old, it did reveal a trend of increased support. Especially significant was that 39% of those polled put down that they were against abortion, but supported stem cell research. This suggests that there is a diversity of stances regarding “right to life.”

Among those who protest abortion, but support embryonic stem cell research, there is a distinction between the human embryo and a more developed fetus. For others, however, even a stem cell constitutes a human life which, from a moral standpoint, should not be terminated. Clearly it will be impossible to get 100% support for stem cell research, as there will always be those whose absolutist moral convictions leave no room for the proposed balancing of societal good against the rights of an embryo, at any stage of development. For those who believe that human life starts at conception, an embryo, even one that would be discarded, should not be used for scientific research, and this argument is clearly not targeted at them; in fact, those who see embryos as human lives would tend to believe that those embryos should not have been created artificially in the first place. However, for those who differentiate between stem cells and more developed fetuses when determining who deserves the right to life, there is room for the consideration of the interests of society at large. Thus although not aimed at all who have moral convictions concerning one’s right to life, this argument is still valid and likely responsible for the increase in support for embryonic stem cell research among those who do differentiate between the different stages of embryonic development.

waffle said...

Bush’s decision to halt funding for stem cell research, while it clearly follows from his Christian morality, is very hypocritical. If Bush is to refrain from trying to overturn Roe v. Wade than why must he attack what is an accepted practice by a great number of Americans, according to the CBS poll in the previous comment? It’s clear that Bush would like all forms of “killing” to be banned in the States but if he is to allow the abortion of a fetus, why does he enact legislation against those who utilize a form of human much less developed, the stem cell? This is akin to telling people not to eat shrimp scampi but allowing them to have a hamburger. It’s objectionable, even among the vegetarian community, whether shrimp feel pain and can suffer but it is clear that cows’ nervous systems are close to ours and that they can suffer. Thus if Bush were a raging liberal vegan (a la Dennis Kucinich), would he ban the consumption of meat patties or shrimp scampi? Either he tries to ban both or he bans neither but it’s nothing but hypocritical to allow the more morally-objectionable practice while attempting to ban the one less so.

Anonymous said...

mmd cites a very interesting finding above from a CBS poll, that "39% of those polled put down that they were against abortion, but supported stem cell research." Except on very narrow grounds, the two, I think, are one and the same.

The Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade (1973) that:
1) fetuses are not "people" by law and thus the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect fetuses from state actions that "deprive any person of life."
2) states still have a compelling interest in protecting the life of the fetus, and this interest becomes so compelling after the fetus becomes viable that it overpowers the woman's claim to her right to have her child aborted. Thus, states, if they wish, can ban abortions of post-viability fetuses within their jurisdictions.

Those people against abortion have, in their favor, at least that restriction on abortions that the Supreme Court, in fact, granted in Roe and reaffirmed by the Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). So those who still are against abortion want that boundary pushed further back. But what other sensible, clear boundary for a ban on abortions is there than conception itself? And if a person prefers this kind of ban on abortions, a ban that applies to any post-conception pre-life form, how can someone favor this standard and back stem cell research?

Vladimir Estragon said...

"Opponents argue that such harvesting is wrong because it destroys human life, and many maintain, is tantamount to “playing god”—a game which, they argue, we neither have the judgment nor the right to play."

One of the primary arguments against stem-cell research (in summarized form) seems to be that choosing to destroy human life in order to potentially prevent the deaths of (many) others is wrong because it is morally equivalent to murder and in that it chooses some lives over others is like playing god.

The most commonly cited, and probably strongest counter-argument was already stated, that being:
". . . the embryos in question—mostly surplus from fertility clinics— were going to be destroyed anyway and there is no harm at all in taking advantage of our resources."

Even if this were not the case, those arguing against stem cell research that support war (for example, some of the recent conflicts in the Middle East) seem inherently hypocritical. What are these wars but deciding that it is worth killing foreigners to decrease the likelihood of future American deaths? In essence, we are choosing some lives over others and in that sense, playing god. Any decision that chooses to end some life in order to protect others would be similarly objectionable.

Is war paid for by our tax dollars? You betcha. Do those who have moral objections to war nonetheless have their tax dollars used to further the effort for such murder? Again, yes.

There are, definitely, factors that make the war-stem cell research analogy imperfect. For one, war involves ending adult (and in general post-birth) lives - no gray area there. Secondly, the lives ended in war would not have been immediately and unquestionably ended otherwise, like the "lives" involved in stem cell research.

I don't know how stem-cell research ever became a hot topic in politics, but compared with the ridiculous carelessness with human life that the US government has shown in its foreign policy endeavors for decades it is amazing (and a tribute to the political machinations manipulating the public) that somehow a whole segment of society has gotten caught up in objecting to what should be ignored as innocuous (and admirably motivated) scientific research.