Disease and illness are growing causes of death everywhere in the world. Scientists are creating new ways to fight this devastating war on health problems. One of the best possibilities of victory resides in stem cell research. Stem cell research is the scientific study of certain types of cells called stem cells; these cells have the potential to revive, recreate and restore existing cells in the body. According to the Kansas University Medical Center in 2010, stem cells are unspecialized cells that develop into specialized cells, which make up more than 200 different types of cells in the human body. Stem cells are extracted from:
“Spare embryos: stem cells can come from leftover embryos stored at fertility clinics that were not used by couples to have children.
Special purpose embryos: embryos are created in vitro fertilization (artificially in the lab) for the sole purpose of extracting their stem cells.
Cloned embryos: embryos are cloned in labs using the somatic nuclear transfer method in order to harvest the stem cells.
Aborted fetuses: stem cells are taken from fetuses in early development that have been aborted.
Umbilical cords: this after-childbirth tissue holds potential for research.
Adult tissue or organs: stem cells are obtained from the tissue or organs of living adults during surgery.
Cadavers: isolation and survival of neural progenitor cells from human post-mortem tissues (up to 20 hours after death) has been reported and provides an additional source of human stem cells” (Pecorino L, 2010).
Stem cell research has resulted in considerable controversy as a result of its nature. A discussion of its advantages, disadvantages and ethical considerations provides a springboard for identifying the different issues involved.
ADVANTAGES of STEM-CELL RESEARCH
There are a vast amount of benefits for continuing and advancing in stem cell technology. One of the benefits of the research is the comprehension of the development of a cell. The more we know about cellular growth, the better we understand the aging cycles of a cell. Scientist can determine how and when they can deteriorate or grow cancerous. This means that doctors can possibly implant new cells to fight diseases. Also, scientists can determine how and when cells become more complex, which can lead to the possibility of creating complex cells in the same manner.
Another important benefit of stem cell research is the possibility of their use in biomedical research, such as drug studies. This will greatly enhance the safety of such studies and their results for recipients of resultant medication:
“With the advancement in stem cell research, it is possible to conduct clinical trials and test drugs and medications before marketing commercially. Thus, the effectiveness and side effects of therapeutic medicines can be studied in the absence of animal and human testers.” (Sandhyarani, N. 2010).
A further advantage is that biomedical engineers will be able to create more beneficial drugs, as the time and other resources involved in testing will be minimized. A current case of the benefits of stem cell research has occurred in China, where stem cell experimentation is extensive. According to a video on StemCellsChina.com (2010), a young girl with cerebral palsy received many treatments. Kaelyn Sosa was almost two years old when she had an accident. She had to go to the hospital where medical personnel placed a tube into her airway. While in the MRI, the little girl removed the tube, causing her to asphyxiate herself. She lost a considerable amount of oxygen and suffered brain damage. Kaelyn received a few stem cell treatments in the United States and obtained minimal results. Legal issues in the United States made it difficult for the family to continue their quest for solutions. In China however, Kaelyn received 6 umbilical cord blood stem cell and 1 Bone Marrow aspiration injection, along with physical therapy. In the months following the therapy, she had grown stronger and more alert. Where she used to reach out and miss objects, she was now finding them and had better control of her body. The results were not drastic, but they were indeed noticeable.
While not an abundant amount of information is known about this science, stem cell research shows great potential to help with health issues. According to Viegas (2003, p. 47), for example, current stem cell research is focused upon three main areas: laboratory study to ensure the safety of stem cells for use in human beings; testing on human beings suffering from serious medical conditions; and hematopoietic stem cells, which is derived from umbilical cords and afterbirth when babies are newly born.
The benefits of stem cell research are becoming increasingly obvious. Viegas (2003, p. 48) states that, while paralyzed people before the turn of the century had little hope, stem cell research provides the possibility of healing. In the year 2000, researchers were able to restore movement to paralyzed mice and rats, by injecting stem cells into their spines.
Hematopoietic stem cells are already used to treat children with certain conditions. These stem cells have the ability to divide and create red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets for assistance in blood clotting.
In the light of all these advantages and developments, one might therefore argue that the considerable controversy surrounding the issue is somewhat misplaced, especially when considering the benefits of the technology. However, it is also important to consider the social and cognitive issues that influence the public opinion. Indeed, the controversy is far more complex than the mere weight of advantages as opposed to disadvantages.
THE CONTROVERSY of STEM-CELL RESEARCH
According to Liu and Priest (2007), most of the controversy surrounding stem cell research has been based upon religious convictions. Almost since the successful extraction of stem cells from human embryos, scientific has been engulfed in controversy in terms of both religion and morality. At the same time, politics and the media has also played a significant role in perpetuating this controversy, fuelling opposition despite the obvious benefits of the technology.
Liu and Priest (2007, p. 4) mention the example of Christian conservatives, who is of the conviction that embryos are human beings. As such, these embryos need to be subject to the respect for life commanded by God. Indeed, the belief follows that embryos, being part of the human race, are also created in the image of God — a common Christian concept.
This sector further promotes the opposition to stem cell research as a type of abomination in terms of not only religion, but also of morality. The Christian voice regarding this issue is significantly strong, and influences the public opinion to some degree. Hence, although religious opposition emerges primarily from the Christian community, its influence extends beyond the borders of this religious sector.
Specifically, Rogal (2009, p. 3) mentions that the strongest religious opposition emerges not only from the Christian community in general, but also from institutions in the sector, most notably including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Family Research Council.
In terms of morality, physicians who oppose stem cell research on the grounds of promoting life for all living beings, including embryos. Such physicians, like those who oppose abortion on moral grounds, ethically disagree with the destruction of the embryo, which has the potential of life, even if this means saving another human life. According to Dahmen and Lundy (p. 2), critics have gone as far as stating that stem cell research, in destroying an embryo is tantamount to abortion and therefore morally reprehensible.
According to Rogal (2009, p. 6), the issue has sparked such controversy that it has encouraged fundamentalist Christians to enter the political arena in an attempt to oppose stem cell research more strongly. In politicizing these issue, leaders in Evangelical and fundamentalist circles have succeeded in shaping the opinions of their congregations on the matter. Indeed, the political participation of the clergy has gone as far as preaching political issues in their sermons, teachings, and church bulletins. All these media have served as a platform for fundamentalist religious leaders to gather a significant amount of support for their views.
INFLUENCING the PUBLIC: THE ROLE of the MEDIA and POLITICS
The role of the media in shaping the public opinion is important. This occurs by much the same dynamic as the church media, although not exclusively on religious grounds. The fundamental reasons behind the successful influence of the media are similar for both religious and non-religious media. In considering the Media, Liu and Priest (2007, p. 5) note that the media portrays stem cell research in varying ways, and as such, create varying perceptions of the issue within the public.
Indeed, early in their work (p. 2), the authors already note that, while the ideal is to root the pubic opinion within debate and conscious critical thinking, the reality is that people tend to be “cognitive misers.” With this, the authors mean that there is a tendency to take what the media or even simply respected leaders present at face value without submitting it to critical examination. This is especially so when issues, such as stem cell research, are not matters of general public knowledge. The media might present an issue as fact without verifying its truth via the appropriate channels, while the public in turn is eager to accept as fact what is presented to them, as this is much more simple than researching the issues themselves, or even simply verifying the truth of a stated fact. Furthermore, the authors hold that simply educating the public regarding issues of scientific controversy is far too simple a solution for a problem of such complexity. Indeed, the variety of opinions as mixed with fact, along with personal and social religious and moral opinion make the issue far more than one of mere cognitive understanding.
In the case of stem cell research specifically, personal, religious, and scientific opinion are also intertwined with politics, as well as either gloomy or bright predictions for a contradictory future should stem cell research be legalized. Indeed, there appears to be little hope for a homogeneous and amicable solution. There are simply too many interested parties; those who suffer from diseases; political parties whose main support is from the religious community; and the medical community who might profit from success in stem cell research all hold different stakes in the technology.
In addition to its take in stem cell technology, politics can also be said to exert considerable influence over the public opinion. Politics in the United States is indeed in itself an especially strong influence within the public. Calvari (2008) uses the example of President Bush to demonstrate this. Prior to the President’s public declaration of policy regarding stem cell research, no federal funds was available for research when stem cells were derived from human embryos or fetal tissue (Calvari, 2008, p. 7). This changed during 1998, when the National Institute for Health provided guidelines that included stem cell research on embryos that were in excess at fertility clinics. Federal funding was however still absent, in waiting for a review of grant applications. This stalled the process to such a degree that it was all but terminated. Once in office, President Bush made not secret of his opinion that stem cell research on human embryos should not receive federal funding. This influenced the issue not only in the scientific community, but also in terms of public opinion.
This however created a discrepancy between scientific progress and governmental policy. The progress made by science in stem cell research, regardless of public or political opposition, required a clear statement from the President, which, according to Calvari, he provided in August 2001. In his address, the President voiced the opinion of many Americans, in that the importance of battling disease should not override the importance of the potential for life itself. President Bush hence declared his position as opposed to stem cell research that destroyed embryos. Furthermore, the President also forwarded his own religious viewpoint, which holds that life is a gift from the creator, and that destroying embryos in favor of science held particular dangers for society.
Nevertheless, the President understood the importance of compromise, and allowed funding for research on existing stem cell lines, where there is no life or death decision pending. Specifically, this meant that stem cell research was only allowed in cases where cells were provided with the informed consent of donors; derived from excess embryos created for reproductive purposes; or without financial inducements to donors.
This compromise was more than the effect of any personal opinions by President Bush. Indeed, by offering it to the public, he hoped to cater to both an opposition sector, which opposed stem cell research entirely, and a more liberal sector of the public, which hoped he would be less restrictive in his policies. In this way, it appears that the President, like many a politician, attempted to influence the public opinion of his office in terms of gaining popularity and votes rather than actively and critically considering the best course of action for the benefit of the public.
The way in which the pubic perceives political influence over scientific issues such as stem cell research. According to O’Brien, a significant proportion of the public does not believe that politicians are sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions regarding stem cell research policy. O’Brien investigated the public opinion regarding scientific as opposed to political leaders in their importance regarding decision-making on scientific issues. According to O’Brien (p. 18), a direct influencing factor on this opinion is the amount of knowledge that scientists are believed to have of scientific issues, whereas elected political leaders are perceived to be concerned more with general public issues.
When then returning to the case of President Bush above, it follows that O’Brien’s research group would generally have less confidence in the President’s assessment of the stem cell issue and its potential danger to the public than in the opinion of scientists.
O’Brien’s findings therefore appear to indicate that the larger sector of the public believed that scientists should have more power in scientific policy making than elected political officials. And it appears that there is at least some merit in this opinion; public opinions of the Bush decision regarding stem cell research revealed a widely-held opinion that it was far too strict and that it restricted the benefits that such research could hold for the well-being of humanity.
O’Brien makes no absolute conclusions, but emphasizes that there should be considerable future work in the area not only of the benefits of stem cell research, but also in terms of the public opinion, and its dynamic as related to political leadership. Indeed, much research is still needed before the true benefits and potential dangers of stem cell therapy will be known. Authors and critics alike tend to be cautious in terms of making predictions. However, existing progress remains undeniable: stem cell therapy can have great benefits for those who suffer from previously incurable conditions. This in itself should serve the urge towards further research and development.
In conclusion, no amount of political, moral or religious debate can deny the fact that stem cell research has enormous potential for the future of human health. Forman (2008, p. 86) gives a good summary of the current lack of certainty, emphasizing that many moral and religious questions remain at the center of the issue. There is for example the question of “playing God” — is it appropriate for human beings to use the very foundations of life to experiment for the improvement of existing life? On the other hand, the author asks whether this is not indeed a God-given responsibility. If scientists have the knowledge, for example to use stem cell technology, should they not use it for the benefit of humankind?
On the other hand, it is not simply an issue of morality, religion, or God’s relationship with the human mind. There are also issues of money and corruption inherent in the possibilities opened up by stem cell research. Unscrupulous politicians and even physicians may for example use the results of research for personal gain, rather than for the improvement of humanity, which would be the ideal aim. As Forman (p. 87) points out, moral, religious, political and scientific issues all concomitantly work to complicate the research itself.
Perhaps then there is little wonder in the fact that more progress has not yet been made with stem cell research. On the other hand, an increasing amount of approval has been indicated by researchers. Soon perhaps, human beings will be able to experience the enormous benefits of stem cell research without too much worry about their immortal souls. Indeed, all forms of science at one time or another was at the center of moral, religious and political debate. It appears then that its full acceptance by biomedical researchers and finally by the public will only be a question of time.
Calvari, a. (2008). Governing the Nation, Leading the Party: The Party Politics of President Bush’s Actions on Stem Cell Research. Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago.
Dahmen, N.S. And Lundy, L. A Question of Ethics: Comparing Framing of Stem Cell Research in Evangelical and Mainstream News Media. Manship School of Mass Communication, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
Forman, L. (2008). Stem Cell Research. Minnesota: ABDO Publishing Company.
Liu, H. And Priest, S. (2007). Understanding Public Support for Stem Cell Research: Media Communication, Interpersonal Communication and Trust in Key Actors. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, DC.
O’Brien, T.L. Scientists, Elected Officials, and Science-Based Policy: The Cases of Global Warming and Stem Cell Research. Indiana University, Bloomington.
Stem Cell Research Basics. (2010) K.U. Medical Center. Retrieved on June 1, 2010 at http://www.kumc.edu/stemcell/intro.html
Pecorino L. (2010). Stem Cells for Cell-Based Therapies. Actionbioscience.org. Retrieved on June 01, 2010 from http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/pecorino2.html
Rogal, G. (2009). Religious Fundamentalism and Stem Cell Research: The 2006 Missouri Stem Cell Initiative. Midwest Political Science Association: Annual Meeting. Chicago, IL.
Sandhyarani, N. (2010). Stem Cell Research Benefits. Buzzle.com. Retrieved on June 1, 2010 from http://www.buzzle.com/articles/stem-cell-research-benefits.html
Viegas, J. (2003). Stem Cell Research. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Ltd.
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