In our society today, there are many issues that stir up heated debate. The continuing debate over stem cell research and human cloning over the last few years in particular is no exception. There are many arguments supporting both negative and positive effects of the research and the related ethical issues often appear to be at the forefront. This essay aims to examine some of those sides to the debate and also briefly views the issues from the political, economic and sociological perspectives. Included as an appendix, is a number of articles used to support the issues discussed. These articles were chosen for their succinct and logical input to the issues. Cloning and stem cells and their related research and applications is complex, as the following paper discusses.
A stem cell is a cell that has the ability to divide, or self-replicate, for indefinite periods of time and are cells that have not yet turned into specific cell types (Dayton, 2003). They contain the genetic code necessary to form different types of cells and their offspring can grow into a number of different cell types. For example, stem cells from bone marrow can form red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. There are skin cells, which gives rise to different types of skin cells, etc. Stem cells can be extracted from adults, children, and embryos. Embryonic stem cells are harvested from early human embryos.
The embryos usually come from in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) clinics and are left over from infertility treatments. People arguing against embryonic stem cell research claim that other methods of harvesting stem cells where embryos are not destroyed can be just as effective at producing stem cells, or at least should be fully explored as an option first. These other methods include harvesting stem cells from cord blood taken from the umbilical cords of newborns and from bone marrow and other adult tissue. The embryonic stem cells are capable of using their genetic code to propagate many types of human cells. Cells of the heart and nerves, for example, that have been damaged may be replaced with new ones, such as in heart attack patients or people with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
The potential for the use of embryonic stem cells in medical science is great, however, to extract the embryonic stem cells, the embryo itself must be destroyed. Embryonic stem cell research is scientifically more promising than research on adult stem cells, but ethically more problematic. It may be a bioethical minefield, but many scientists believe it is worth it. For example, researchers at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, Australia, are trying to find a cure for diabetes by aiming to reverse the disease by finding a way to replace the insulin-producing cells that are missing in type 1 diabetes patients (Goldberg, 2002).
However, not everyone agrees that the scientific benefits of embryonic stem cell research is worthy of the destruction of human embryos. Dr. Best (2002) of the Social Issues Executive claims that the therapeutic benefits promised from stem cell research can only be achieved by cloning. Further, as stem cell research ultimately results in the destruction of the embryo, Dr. Best states that any research on such cells should only be for the benefit of themselves and not for the benefit of another person.
Moreover, Dr. Best explains that there are alternative outcomes for the embryos available (e.g., allowing them to die respectfully, adoption by infertile couples) that give them the respect and human dignity that experimental research denies them. However, Australian stem cell researchers met in March 2002 to discuss the possibility of a stem cell bank to provide reliable sources of embryonic stem cells.
Leading US and Canadian scientists have now taken the same path, also calling for a national stem cell bank to be established (Dayton, 1998, p.7). In addition, Dayton writes that reliable sources of human embryonic stem cells were ‘…essential if researchers were to develop therapies for debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and replacement or repair for damaged spines, skin and other organs.’ With the advances in stem cell technology and its applications, combined with the increasing ambitions of the scientists, human cloning for therapeutic applications (e.g., mending severed spinal cords, injecting diabetics with insulin-producing cells) is becoming a real likelihood.
The development of procedures to inject patients with stem cells into different pathways with the intention of replacing damaged or malfunctioning cells with new ones, the real problem of the body’s immune system rejecting the new cells needs to be overcome (Best, 2002). According to Dr. Best, it has been proposed that this problem be overcome by creating a clone of the patient. The cloned embryo would be grown to around 6 days old before the stem cells are harvested, thus destroying the embryo.
But the idea of cloning, particularly if it leads to reproductive cloning, brings forth even more moral and ethical issues. One issue often raised by human cloning is that of identity. Some claim that a clone is not a unique identity. However, as argued by Honey (2003), uniqueness should not be an issue as offspring are frequently observed as having physical features and characteristics similar to that of their parents.
Further, Honey adds that identical twins are ‘…naturally occurring clones’ derived from the same egg and sperm. Although genetically identical, maintain individual (and unique) identities and personalities. Moreover, a clone, although genetically identical, could also be unique in its behaviour, personality, interests, and way of thinking. The clone would always be younger than their genetic twin, mature in a different environment, would be raised differently, and have different external factors shaping its personality and thought processes. There are many reasons put forward to permit reproductive cloning.
Parents may wish to reproduce a dying child by cloning and in the process the clone would not carry the damaged or diseased cells causing the illness. Infertile couples (including gay and lesbian couples) may be able to have children genetically related to at least one of them. Cloning could also provide a suitable source of organs for transplant patients. In contrast, Dr. Best argues that therapeutic cloning is unethical because it relies on the ‘…utilitarian calculus’ that puts potential medical advances ahead of the life of the embryo. Dr. Best also adds that is unethical to destroy a human life for research that may only potentially benefit another, in essence, view a human life as a means to an end.
Dr. Best also describes cloning as unethical because of concerns over the possibility that woman may be exploited due to the large number of eggs needing to be harvested to supply clones for stem cell research. Along the same lines, Cetron and Davies (2001 in Lucas 2002, pp. 27 – 42) note that as growing debate on these issues continues, one of the main areas of concern would be surrogate motherhood. However, ethical issues aside, there are other perspectives from which to view such these advances in medical science.
From a political perspective, the issues raised by advances in stem cell and cloning research and technology, in both Australia and internationally, could potentially have major diabolical consequences should governments not take appropriate and expedient steps to ensure that the use of such technology progresses within laws and guidelines that uphold moral and ethical values. Government has the most power to implement societal rules and enforce them (Lucas, 2002, p. 49). All Australian states and territories have enacted legislation regulating the donation and transplantation of human tissue.
In New South Wales, the Human Tissue Act 1983 covers the removal and donation of tissue for transplant, scientific research or therapeutic use and post mortem examination. The legislation provides that living adults may consent to donate regenerative tissue for transplantation or for therapeutic, medical or scientific purposes. However, in regards to cloning and related research (i.e., stem cell research) the ownership of human tissue is a complex matter and the law is unclear. For example, it is not clear who, if anyone, owns genetic material or human tissue. And so, it is unclear who has the right to posses it or even use it. The issues relating to stem cell and cloning research has given rise to mixed public reactions.