To summarize, stem cells offer exciting promise for future therapies, but significant technical hurdles remain that will only be overcome through years of intensive research."
In other countries, the policies on stem cell research are also dependent on the existing dominant philosophical and ethical standpoints of the legislators. Belgium, for example, shares the same legal stand with the United States. It does allow the procurement of embryonic stem cells but only from surplus of embryos used in in vitro fertilization. Germany and Italy, on the other hand, prohibit the procurement of embryonic stem cells from human embryos, but states like Austria, Bulgaria, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania have no specific legislation regarding the matter (EuroStemCell, 2007).
Stem cells are pluripotent cells of the body which are “undifferentiated.” This means that stem cells can ultimately give rise to any type of body tissue. Thus stem cells have the potential to cure a vast number of diseases and physical ailments including Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and heart disease. Consequently, stem cell research and the development of associated medical applications are of great interest to the scientific and medical community. The area of stem cell research involving human embryonic stem cells is of particular interest in that embryonic stem cells are derived from week-old blastocysts developed from in vitro fertilized eggs. As opposed to adult stem cells, which must undergo a complicated process of de-differentiation prior to application, embryonic stem cells are capable of undergoing directed differentiation. In the second process, scientists solely manipulate the culture in which the embryonic cells are grown or directly alter the genetic content of the cells. Herein lies the heart of the ethical debate over the morality of destroying a human embryo in order to derive embryonic stem cells for treatment.
Those in support of embryonic stem cell research claim that the week-old blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells are derived are merely a cluster of cells and thus do not constitute a human being. Because these cells are “not human,” the embryos should not be afforded the same human rights as are granted to other more advanced stages of cell growth. Many liberals and conservatives alike argue that the potential benefits far outweigh the moral concerns, and for this reason, embryonic stem cell research should be pursued. President Obama issued an executive order revoking President Bush’s previous order that limited funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells for its violation of human rights:
Research involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells has the potential to lead to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions. Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the full range of promising stem cell research should be supported by Federal funds. (White House)
Executive Order 1505 is already a big step towards the furtherance of the stem cell research. The principle that it upholds, i.e. that there should only be minimal restriction to scientific research involving human stem cells, may serve as a precedent to future legislations regarding the matter. If the present research would be able to come up with great discoveries, it is very likely that there would be more states which would follow the path of the state of California.
The President’s executive order indicates belief in the medical potential and application embryonic stem cell research. Dr. Dan S. Kaufman, who is an associate director at the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation, supports embryonic stem cell research, arguing that the embryos used in the study of embryonic stem cells come from fertilized zygotes that would be otherwise destroyed:
It is important to recognize that human embryonic stem cells all come from embryos created in excess by fertility clinics. All of these embryos will be destroyed if they are not donated by couples specifically to produce embryonic stem cells for biomedical research. The question then is, what is the most respectful way to treat these valuable embryos? (qtd. in Hubbard)
Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research argue that the potential benefits of such research do not justify the termination of a young human life. There is no question, they say, that even at the blastocyst stage a young human embryo is a form of human life. Therefore, opponents argue, as a human life, embryos possess the same rights and are thus entitled to the same protections as are afforded to other human beings. Dr. Jim Eckman, a member of advisory board of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research (NCER), is vehemently opposed to embryonic stem cell research because he believes that it is a violation of the life, dignity, and rights of human beings: “Failure to protect embryonic and fetal human life, the most vulnerable of human beings, erodes the moral fiber of our society. An assault against any innocent human being is an assault on humanity in general. Since respect for human life is a cornerstone of civilization, human embryonic stem cell research will weaken the moral foundation of our society” (Eckman). Similar to Eckman, opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that life begins at conception, the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, and consequentially the destruction of a week-old human embryo is the destruction of a life. Though the majority of critical voices appreciate the effort to discover and develop cures for the benefit of suffering individuals through stem cells, they promote utilizing stem cells derived from sources other than human embryos, arguing that such research will not cause harm to another human being. Recent scientific studies have made significant progress studying stem cells obtained from adult cells and umbilical cords, neither of which involves the abortion of a human embryo.