Stem cell research is one of the important scientific and political issues of these modern times. The purpose of this sample essay, one of the many writing services offered by Ultius, is to develop a historical and scientific overview of this selected issue. The essay will begin with a general introduction to stem cell research. Then, it will discuss the scientific history of stem cell research as it has unfolded over the past several years; and after this, it will turn to a consideration of the political history of stem cell research. Finally, it will provide a summary reflection on contemporary debates and conflicts that are currently surrounding the issue of stem cell research. This type of document would likely be required in a mid-level English or science course where the focus is on general education over specialized study.
Introduction to Stem Cell Research
According to the American Medical Association:
“[A] stem cell is an immature cell that has the potential to become specialized into different types of cells throughout the body the body,” and “there are two basic types of stem cells: adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells” (paragraphs 1-2).
Adult stem cells can actually be found in both adults and children. Their name comes from the fact that they can be harvested from mature tissue without causing harm to the person from whom they are harvested. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, can only be derived from embryos, and the harvesting process destroys the embryos. From this basic introduction, it is already clear that embryonic stem cell research has far greater potential to be ethically problematic than adult stem cell research. However, embryonic stem cell research is also generally considered to have the greatest potential for delivering medical and scientific breakthroughs, due to the fact that they are even more flexible (so to speak) and undifferentiated than adult stem cells (see Bongo and Richards).
Benefits of stem cell research
From the medical perspective, stem cell research is viewed as very promising due to the fact that if stem cells can be introduced into patients with a range of illnesses, they could possible help regenerate the tissues and organs of the patients and thereby help heal illnesses (and especially degenerative illnesses) that are currently incurable. For example, Lovell-Badge has indicated that diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease are among the illnesses that could potentially be responsive to stem cell research (88). Again, given that the potential of stem cell research is directly correlated with the plasticity of the stem cells in question, it logically follows that there will be an increasing push by scientists to focus research on embryonic stem cells if at all possible, due to the fact that they have greater plasticity than adult stem cells and thus greater potential to contribute to medical breakthroughs. The moral dimension of the issue, however, has generally led to limitations being imposed on the capacity of scientists to pursue embryonic stem cell research.
Scientific history of stem cell research
The organization Science Progress has provided a good summary of some of the main events that have marked the scientific history of stem cell research. These include:
- The first isolation of stem cells from mice in the year 1980
- The first isolation in primates in the year 1995
- The first isolation in humans in the year 1997
These events were important due to the fact that scientifically speaking, the isolation of stem cells from other elements within the body would be a prerequisite for conducting rigorous research on stem cells themselves. From this point, human scientific history over the course of the last decade and a half has been characterized by progressive breakthroughs in stem cell technologies, including:
- Stem cell transplants for patients with illnesses such as leukemia
- Trials with human beings with degeneration of the eyes
- Experiments with mice regarding the regeneration of heart tissue
- The cloning of embryonic stem cells (which would avert the need to harvest new stem cells from new embryos)
Clearly, the scientific progress over the past several years gives great cause for hope. There has been a steady trend of scientists increasingly learning the secrets of stem cells and being able to apply their new knowledge to either research potential treatments or actually deliver effective treatments to human beings. Therefore, it could be suggested that anyone who has a real interest in seeing major medical breakthroughs happen (which, presumably, would be almost everyone) cannot afford to oppose the ongoing development of stem cell research per se. What there clearly can be controversy over, though, is how exactly the research agenda ought to proceed. In order to more effectively address this dimension of the issue presently under consideration, it may be a good idea to turn now to the political history of stem cell research, or legislation that has surrounding the issue as it has developed over time.
Political history of stem cell research
One of the clearest points that emerges regarding the political history of stem cell research and bioengineering in general, is that there has been ongoing controversy over the extent to which the federal government should fund research. This has proved to be a quite partisan issue. For example, in 2001, Bush issued an executive order that placed significant restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research; and in 2009, Obama countermanded this order with an order of his own called “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research involving Human Stem Cells” (see Research America). This, of course, is tied to broader political conflicts regarding issues such as religion and abortion. If the federal government is to spend tax money on stem cell research, then this would likely contradict the values of many Americans, and especially conservative Americans, regarding the origins of human life. This is likely why the main legislative barriers against stem cell research have always focused on embryonic stem cell research. Again, as has been noted above, significantly greater ethical dilemmas inhere to research with embryonic stem cells than to research with adult stem cells.
Restrictions on stem cell harvesting
A good example of such restrictions can be seen in the guidelines for stem cell research released by the National Institute of Health in 2000, which stipulated that:
“human embryonic stem cells must be derived with private funds from frozen embryos from fertility clinics; that they must have been created for fertility treatment purposes; that they be in excess of the donor’s need; and that they be obtained with consent of the doctor” (Research America, 25 Aug. 2000 entry).
Several important ethical points are exemplified by this statement, including that embryonic stem cells must be derived using private (and not public) funds and that it still is not acceptable to create embryos simply for the sake of harvesting stem cells from them (and destroying them in the process). Over the course of the last several years, though, such regulations would seem to have become someone less salient both due to their relaxation under the Obama administration and to scientific innovations regarding adult stem cells, which have enabled scientists to somewhat circumvent the legislative debate surrounding embryonic stem cells.
Summary of current situation
As Wertz has succinctly put it:
“stem cell research in the United States is inevitably connected with the politics of abortion” (674).
This is because controversy over stem cell research generally tends to focus on the use of embryonic stem cells; but then, this leads to the more fundamental question of the legal, ethical, and metaphysical status of the embryo. In principle, if one grants that abortions are acceptable, then one must also grant that it is acceptable to create embryos specifically for the purpose of harvesting stem cells from them. This logically follows because abortion could only be deemed acceptable if the embryo is not considered to be alive and/or metaphysically human; and if this were the case, then there would be no moral grounds for opposing the manufacture of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. To put it a little differently: insofar as an embryo is not understood as a living human being, there would be no reason for controversy to even arise regarding this matter.
When does life begin?
Of course, there is a significant number of Americans who believe that life begins at conception, and that the embryo is thus in fact metaphysically a living human being. If this were the case, then the manufacture of embryos simply for the purpose of destroying them would be horrific, insofar the destruction of each embryo would then be morally and conceptually equivalent to murder. If this paradigm is accepted, then whatever benefits could be produced by embryonic stem cell research would clearly be outweighed by unacceptability of the atrocities that would need to be committed in order to achieve those benefits.
Clearly, this conflict ultimately surpasses the bounds of science itself and is grounded in the differing religions and broader worldviews of different groups of people within the nation. As Robertson has written:
“There is a fervent battle over the ethical acceptability of destroying early embryos . . . Stem cell science is thus drawn into the ongoing, highly divisive wars over abortion and the culture of life that have occupied a central stage in American law and politics over the last 30 years” (192).
Stem cell research is thus a highly partisan issue, and it is likely to remain that way over the foreseeable future. Again, this is because the real points of contention that surround the issue surpass the scope of science or even reason more generally; they touch on people’s fundamental beliefs about what it means to be human. For example:
- One side may argue that embryos are not humans and that it is thus acceptable to destroy them in order to relieve the suffering of actual humans
- The other side may argue that embryos are in fact humans and that under no circumstances can their destruction be acceptable
Both positions would be cogent within the context of their own assumptions; and it would be difficult if not impossible to rationally discredit either set of assumptions.
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The power of god?
In addition, it is worth pointing out that even adult stem cell research is controversial, insofar as stem cell research in general has the potential to lead to human cloning. The basic point here would be that human beings are engaging with a dangerous power that may be intimately connected with the very origins of life itself. Again, whether this is problematic would depend entirely on one’s religion and/or broader worldview. If there were no God, then there would naturally be no problem with human beings pushing their knowledge to the limits. On the other hand, if one did believe in God, then it would be possible to argue that stem cell research is an attempt by humans to usurp His role. As with the morality of the destruction of embryos, this question can be expected to remain open for a quite long time.
In summary, this essay has provided a historical and scientific overview of the issue of stem cell research. It began with an introduction to the issue, proceeded to discuss the scientific and political history of the issue, and finally reflected on the current situation regarding the issue. One of the main points that has emerged here and throughout research paper writing on the subject is that although stem cell research clearly has a great deal of potential for catalyzing medical breakthroughs, the research agenda has been limited to at least some extent by legislative barriers based on moral concerns. Given the nature of the issue at hand, these latter concerns clearly are not irrelevant. Moreover, it could even be suggested that without the barriers, certain recent scientific innovations (such as those pertaining to adult stem cells) may not have come about. In general, then, it is perhaps a good idea for stem cell research to proceed in the cautious and pragmatic way that it has thus far.
American Medical Association. “Basics of Stem Cell Research.” n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. .
Bongso, Ariff, and Mark Richards. “History and Perspective of Stem Cell Research.” Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology 18.6 (2004): 827-842. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. .
Lovell-Badge, Robin. “Overview: The Future for Stem Cell Research.” Nature 414 (2001): 88-91. Print.
Research America. “Timeline of Major Events in Stem Cell Research Policy.” 2014. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. .
Robertson, John A. “Embryo Stem Cell Research: Ten Years of Controversy.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics (Summer 2010): 191-203. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. .
Science Progress. “Timeline: A Brief History of Stem Cell Research.” 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. .
Wertz, D. C. “Embryo and Stem Cell Research in the United States: History and Politics.” Gene Therapy 9.11 (2002): 674-678. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. .