By Maria Victoria Gonzaga
Embryonic Stem Cell research offers a remarkable way to treat various disorders where conventional therapeutic interventions have failed to treat effectively. With embryonic stem cells, a valuable alternative approach can be proffered to treat injuries and certain disorders with rather minimal risks.
What is interesting about embryonic stem cells? These cells have the ability to self-renew through mitosis. They are also pluripotent, which means they have the potential to differentiate into a more specialized, mature cell type performing distinct functions. It means that these cells can give rise to different cell types similar to a typical cell of a growing embryo inside the mother’s uterus that can differentiate into any basic cell type — be it a blood cell, muscle cell, nerve cell, etc. The difference though is that embryonic stem cells are created, maintained, and grown in laboratory cultures outside the human body.
What do their features mean in medicine? The capacity of embryonic stem cells to self-renew and exhibit pluripotency means that they can be used in regenerative medicine such as tissue graft while the risk of donor-host rejection and teratoma are reduced, even prevented. And since these cells can become any of the fundamental adult cells, they can be used to replenish the body with functional cells. Thus, patients suffering from tissue injuries or genetic disorders can be administered with these cells to restore damaged or faulty cells.
Because they are capable of propagating indefinitely they can also serve as models for genetic disorders. Thus, they can become a potent research tool to probe certain human genetic disorders such as fragile-X syndrome and cystic fibrosis.
If embryonic stem cells are meant to help treat and prolong life, and by this means spur hope to the afflicted, then, how can embryonic stem cells turn out to be unethical? In this article, I only intend to provide a general idea about the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cells by identifying the reasons embossed by critics on how embryonic stem cell research can be morally unsound.
First and foremost, embryonic stem cells are cells with a potential for life. The ”embryonic” part ignites multifarious debates stemming from the lack of consensus regarding the meaning, bounds, and sense of life. Questions such as “When does life starts and ends?” and “Does an embryonic stem cell implicate life or not?” cannot be plainly answered. Those who oppose believe that these cells are also living cells. Conversely, others deem that embryonic stem cells do not depict life but only a potential for life.
Another reason relevant to the above is the lack of consensus regarding the categorization of a human being. The embryonic stem cells function the same way as typical embryonic cells that give rise to the human fetus. Thus, opponents can regard embryonic stem cells as potential human beings despite their in vitro origin. If this kind of research persists, the quintessence of human life may soon be tainted, especially from the standpoint of religious and social groups.
Finally, procedures such as storing and destroying embryonic stem cells for research are viewed as ethically wrong. The storing of embryonic stem cells seems like an act of denying the right to human life. The proponents though rationalize with a “nothing is lost” argument.1 They argue that since there is an excess of embryos created in vitro these embryos have to be kept for future research use. What else can be done to these embryos is nothing but to put them to beneficial use, such as in research that could generate key findings that can save lives. In the United States, there is a surplus of 400,000 human embryos produced from in vitro fertilization which are therefore frozen and kept to this day. Nonetheless, the project still remains unacceptable to pro-life advocates since studies using these embryos eventually lead to the destruction of the embryo and thus tagged the procedure as ”murder”.
Embryonic stem cell research is a heated topic because of the ethical concerns involved. It only goes to show that what can be regarded as generally good does not always mean it is also ethically right.
1Arthur Asuncion, “Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Unethical”, October, 2004. http://www.ics.uci.edu/~asuncion/stem-cells.htm
Gonzaga, Maria Victoria (2011, March 10). Why Embryonic Stem Cell Use is Unethical. biologyonline.com.
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