Stem cell research and cloning are controversial. Scientists claim medical necessity. Opponents argue it’s unethical. This sample expository essay explores the argument against stem cell research.
Arguments against stem cell research and cloning
Stem cell research refers to scientific research on elements within the human body known as stem cells for the purposes of achieving medical breakthroughs. This is a quite controversial issue in these times, with different groups of people holding radically different ideas about how the issue must be handled. This essay will focus on four main points:
- The relationship between stem cell research and abortion
- The problem of what could be called “playing God”
- The specific issue of stem cell research in connection with the broader issue of a culture of life
- Identify some of the main implications of this argument
Stem cell research and abortion
The issue of stem cell research has always been closely connected with the issue of abortion. This is because, as Robertson has indicated, human embryos consist of one of the most potent sources of stem cells, and the extraction of stem cells from the embryos requires the destruction of the embryos. This destruction, then, is what both abortion and embryonic stem cell research have in common.
According to the argument against stem cell research, the embryo is a fully living human being; therefore, the destruction of embryos for the purposes of scientific research would be completely unacceptable. Moreover, this would especially be the case in the event that embryos were manufactured specifically for the purposes of stem cell research—that is, with the explicit intention of destroying them.
Unethical to research an unwilling death
Insofar as it is accepted that the embryo is a human life, the implications necessarily follow: naturally, no one would affirm that murder is acceptable for the purposes of research. The problem with stem cell research, then, would be that insofar as it relies on embryonic stem cells, it either implicitly or explicitly provides an incentive for murder.
The objection could perhaps be raised that the harm done to an embryo by stem cell research would be outweighed by the potential good to humanity that would result in terms of the alleviation of suffering.
However, there are two main reasons why this objection could be identified as invalid. The first pertains to what has been called the moral doctrine of double effect, which stipulates that it is never acceptable to utilize a morally unacceptable action as a means toward achieving a moral end, no matter how good that end may be.
Moral implications of stem cell experimentation on an embryo
Pro-life supporters argue the destruction of the embryo would be morally unacceptable, and it would thus not be acceptable to use it as a means toward the alleviation of suffering. Secondly, it must be remembered that within the context of the argument under consideration, the embryo is in fact conceptualized as an actual human being.
Insofar as this is the case, then the same objections could be raised against destroying embryos in order to alleviate the suffering that could be raised against murdering one group of people in order to alleviate the suffering of another group of people. It is unclear whether the embryo is an actual human being. However, it can at least be acknowledged that insofar as some starting point for life must be identified, conception does not seem to be an especially bad one.
Determining if embryo is life or not
This is for the conceptual reason that the distinction between life and non-life must be a qualitative one; and whereas every distinction between fetal stages after conception is merely quantitative (or a difference of degree and not of kind), the moment of conception itself could be understood as a qualitative jump.
Moreover, as Percy has observed, “it is commonplace in biology . . . that the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that thenceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism” (paragraph 6).
The idea that the embryo is a living human being is thus at the very least fully defensible on rational grounds; and at any rate, it cannot be categorically dismissed on purely rational grounds.
Stem cell research, cloning, and playing God
Another element of the argument against stem cell research pertains to the problem of playing God. Essentially, the concern here is that with stem cell research, scientists are beginning to delve into a morally dangerous area insofar as they are exploring knowledge that has to do with the very origins of life itself.
In the Bible, the opening chapter of Genesis clearly delineates how God created the world and all life within the world (see New Jerusalem Bible). So, if human beings gain knowledge pertaining to the origins of life, then there is a significant moral danger that they will begin to usurp the role of God and themselves become the masters of life.
Separating religion from science
Of course, this is only a problem from the perspective of a religious believer: from the perspective of an atheist or secularist, the seat of God is vacant anyway, and there would thus be no problem with human beings moving to fill it. In America, however, there is an enormous number of traditional religious believers, and the problem of playing God would clearly have a great deal of significance and salience for them.
Moreover, it is worth noting that this line of argument is not necessarily absurd. As James has lucidly demonstrated, the question of faith cannot in fact be determined on purely rational grounds. Of course, some people may argue otherwise; but this would only mean that they have become so convinced of their own faith that they no longer even recognize it as a faith, believing instead that they are being “objective” whereas it is only other people who are still subject to faith.
For present purposes, the important thing to understand is that the concern regarding playing God is just as logically cogent as the proposition that God does not exist and that there is no problem with playing Him. It is impossible to rationally prove that these Christian ethics are correct.
But, by the same token, it would also be inappropriate to dismiss the concern as completely meaningless. In other words, this is a coherent mode of argumentation, insofar as the people who oppose stem cell research on these grounds are logically on par with those who support research on the basis of different “religious” beliefs.
Stem cell research and the culture of life
Building off of the previous two elements of the argument against stem cell research, a third element pertains to what can be called the relationship between stem cell research and the culture of life. As Rice has discussed, the culture of life is predominantly a Catholic religious concept, although it has gained traction with other cultural conservatives within the United States as well; and the concept refers to a general ethos, or attitude, that can be applied to a range of contemporary political issues.
The basic gist of the concept is that all phases of the human lifecycle, from conception to (natural) death, are sacred, due to the fact that life ought to be given a take by God alone and not by human beings. This position has implications for a broad range of issues, including abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research.
All life is sacred
For example, if all phases of life are sacred, then it is unacceptable to terminate a pregnancy (since the embryo is a living human being); it is unacceptable to support and/or perform euthanasia (insofar it is only God who has the right to take lives); and it is unacceptable to conduct stem cell and bioengineering research insofar as this implies either the destruction of existing life or the means-end manufacture of new life.
The point here may not be so much whether or not one believes in God; rather, the point may pertain to what one accepts as one’s fundamental ethical criterion. As the philosopher Shestov has argued, there has been an intellectual struggle since the beginning of Western civilization between the idea that life can be controlled and evaluated by reason on the one hand, and accepting life as an a priori given that serves as its own criterion on the other.
Moral implications of cultural norms and stem cell research
The concept of the culture of life ties the issue of stem cell research into a broader constellation of related issues. For example, one could argue that embryos “left over” from fertility treatments should be made available for stem cell research since they would go to “waste” anyway. Such a statement would be horrendous; and if anything, the conclusion that would be implied is not the moral acceptability of embryonic stem cell research but rather the moral unacceptability of fertility treatments that will almost certainly result in the destruction of embryos.
There is nothing inherently incoherent about this train of thought; much the opposite, it holds together in a remarkably cohesive way. The issue, of course, would be that the fundamental premises of the argument are often drawn from faith, which means that the argument is unlikely to meet with general or universal acceptance.
Implications of current stem cell research and cloning regulations and practices
One key implication of the discussion above is that the argument against stem cell research is in fact a lucid one within the context of its premises, and that attempts to suggest otherwise are likely motivated not by the coherence of the argument as such but rather by a fundamental disagreement regarding initial premises.
One issue at stake is not all stem cell research is connected to cloning or immoral actions. Some research actually implies the smaller use of stem cells found in adult bodies. Take stem cell research used in dentistry. This technique is used to help regrow teeth, use stem cells found in bone marrow, and includes studies not attributed to aborted embryos.
Stem cell arguments everlasting and unwinnable
Moreover, another implication is that it is quite unlikely that disagreements over the morality of stem cell research will ever be resolved on purely rational grounds. This is for the simple reason that the argument against stem cell research (just like the argument for stem cell research) is ultimately motivated by theological assumptions.
This is not meant to imply a weakness in the argument in favor of stem cell research or the argument against stem cell research; rather, it is virtually inevitable that such assumptions will have to be made (whatever one’s position), given the nature of the subject matter at hand and the way that the issue touches on some of the most profound mysteries of human existence.
In summary, this essay has discussed the argument against stem cell research; and it has focused on three main elements of the argument. These were:
- Stem cell research and abortion
- The problem of playing God
- Stem cell research and the culture of life
All elements of the argument are animated by fundamental assumptions about the nature of life, of God, and of the role of the human being within the world. These assumptions, however, do not necessarily discredit the argument against stem cell research; and this is because the argument on the other side merely tends to make the converse assumptions, which are equally unjustified on strictly rational grounds.
In short, it can be suggested that whatever position one takes on stem cell research, one’s perspective is informed not by reason alone but by one’s broader worldview.
James, William. “The Will to Believe.” Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretive Essays. John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press. 230-240. Print.
McIntyre, Allison. “Doctrine of Double Effect.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/.
Percy, Walker. “A View on Abortion with Something to Offend Everybody.” New York Times. 8 Jun. 1981. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/08/reviews/percy-abortion.html
The New Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Susan Jones. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Print.
Rice, Charles E. “Abortion, Euthanasia, and the Need to Build a New Culture of Life.” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 12.2 (2012): 497-528. Print.
Robertson, John A. “Embryo Stem Cell Research: Ten Years of Controversy.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics (Summer 2010): 191-203. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/jrobertson/JLME-10-year-survery-Robertson-final.pdf.
Shestov, Lev. Athens and Jerusalem. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966. Print.