Background on the argument in favor of stem cell research and cloning
The essay will not argue in favor of the argument itself but will simply delineate the argument and evaluate the logical coherence of the different elements of the argument. In particular, three elements of the argument will be considered.
- The alleviation of suffering
- The significance of the regulatory context
- The prerogative of science itself to pursue knowledge
Finally, the essay will reflect on the implications of this argument for the present-day situation regarding the selected issue.
Alleviating suffering through stem cell research and disease management
The single most important element in favor of stem cell research has to do with its capacity to alleviate the suffering of a human being by enabling scientists to achieve medical breakthroughs with respect to illnesses that have thus far been incurable. Lovell-Badge has delineated several illnesses that could potentially be treated with stem cell therapies; and these consist especially of degenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s, for example) for which no effective treatments are currently known.
Moreover, it is clear that the arc of scientific development regarding stem cell research shows a great deal of promise. The stem cell was first isolated in human beings only in 1997, and the innovations that have occurred since this point—including experimental therapies for actual human beings—have been what could only be described as phenomenal (see Science Progress).
Research advancements and new discoveries expected
If research continues at the same pace over the next several years, then there is every reason to believe that scientists will achieve the breakthroughs that they are expecting to achieve. Such breakthroughs will clearly help alleviate the suffering of both patients with chronic illnesses and the loved ones of those patients.
Essentially, this constitutes a strong prima facie reason that stem cell research should be allowed to continue. Researchers claim opponents against stem cell research don’t understand the implications for advancement. As Devolder and Savulescu have argued, this can even be interpreted as a moral imperative to pursue embryonic stem cell and cloning research,
The researchers have gone so far as to condemn the United Nations’ declaration on this subject, arguing that the organization “must immediately retract its misguided and immoral Declaration on Human Cloning before it consigns many more future people to early and avoidable suffering and death” (19).
This formulation is admittedly somewhat extreme; however, the same general logic is essential to the argument in favor of stem cell research as a whole. The main idea is that insofar as there is a moral imperative to alleviate suffering whenever possible, and insofar as stem cell research can be reasonably expected to help alleviate suffering, there is a moral imperative to pursue stem cell research; and insofar as this is the case, it would be a moral evil to prevent the progress of research.
Moral complications of suffering versus embryo rights
It is worth noting that virtually no reasonable person from any side of the issue under consideration would deny that the alleviation of suffering is a highly commendable moral objective. If people oppose stem cell research, it is generally not because they deny the basic point that there is a moral imperative to alleviate suffering.
They oppose it because they perceive that there are other competing and equally important imperatives that require limits to be placed on the stem cell research agenda, including concerns about abortion, the right to life, and playing God.
If there is a point of contention, then, it would have to do with the nature of these other moral imperatives and their weights relative to the imperative to alleviate suffering. As such, the argument in favor of stem cell research would seem to proceed on the assumption that the burden of evidence is on the other side.
Significance of government stem cell and cloning regulations
Another element of the argument in favor of stem cell research consists of the idea that the regulatory context for research is by now strong enough that some of the potential excesses feared by people on the other side of the issue have in fact been successfully guarded against.
As Robertson has optimistically put it (writing in 2010):“After 10 years of debate and controversy with ESCs [embryonic stem cells], the ethical issues have now been thoroughly aired and the path is open to rapid development” (201).
This is a reference to the fact that over time, legislation has accrued that specifies such things as what sources of stem cells are considered acceptable for responsible use and what sources of funding can be made available to what kinds of stem cell research. This regulatory context has effectively created a set of widely accepted parameters of what scientists can or cannot responsibly do when pursuing the stem cell research agenda.
Defining stem cell research parameters and setting rules for scientists
Insofar as this context has addressed some of the main concerns of the people who argue against stem cell research, it significantly enhances the strength of the argument in favor of stem cell research. Again, this is because, in the absence of other concerns, the moral imperative to alleviate suffering would require scientists to be permitted to pursue the stem cell research agenda. It could be suggested that the regulatory context goes a significant way toward addressing those competing concerns.
Likewise, it is worth pointing out that even some of the main stem cell technologies that have recently emerged tend to sidestep much of the debate surrounding nature versus bioengineering. This is because whereas much of the debate focuses on embryonic stem cells, recent research has focused on the potential of adult stem cells. For example, Saey has discussed research indicating the potential of the practice of cloning to produce stem cells from adult skin.
Stem cell and cloning procedures not within the realm of moral debate
This process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer; and in principle, it bypasses the ethical conflicts that surround drawing stem cells from embryos, which are destroyed in the harvesting process. In an important sense, such developments may have been at least partly driven by the regulatory context itself: since scientists could not focus more intensively on embryonic stem cells, perhaps they shifted their attention to adult stem cells instead. In any event, such emerging technologies help address competing for moral concerns and thus relatively bolster the moral imperative to alleviate suffering.
Of course, the fact that stem cell research is closely associated with cloning is in and of itself enough to make the entire agenda highly controversial for many Americans. This is because of the popular belief that it is a small step from cloning a single cell (as is the case with the technology described above) to the production of actual human clones.
Cloning may become morally acceptable, and this would also potentially diminish protections currently afforded to human embryos, insofar as the moral logic that protests against cloning is analogous to the moral logic that affords protections to embryos. However, it could be suggested that such an argument commits the logical fallacy known as the slippery slope (see Nizkor Project). That is, it is entirely possible that there are responsible and irresponsible uses of cloning.
It would be misguided to argue that the responsible uses must be banned on the grounds that they will “inevitably” lead to irresponsible users. From the perspective of the argument in favor of stem cell research and cloning, this would be especially problematic given the enormous potentials for the responsible use of stem cell technology. In essence, completely banning stem cell research and/or cloning, would seem to be a disproportionate response to the nature of the moral risks at hand, given their enormous potential to do good for the human species.
The right of scientists to pursue stem cell research and cloning
Finally, a third element of the argument in favor of stem cell research and cloning pertains to what could be called the prerogative of science. As a general principle within a secular and democratic society, it could be affirmed that science has the baseline prerogative to pursue whatever knowledge it sees fit, as long as it proceeds in congruence with nationally and internationally recognized human rights protections.
As the discussion regarding regulatory context above has shown, scientists have thus far done an exemplary job of meeting this moral standard. As such, there would be no non-ideological rationale for preventing scientists from proceeding with their research agenda with the caution and pragmatism that have characterized stem cell research thus far.
No legal grounds for stem cell rights
The problem with these arguments is the law and the constitution’s Bill of Rights do not afford scientists the rights to persue any research they deem necessary. The practice of science, as such, is non-ideological; and the acquisition of knowledge has been a basic objective of all modern societies. According to the argument in favor of stem cell research, it would be a cultural regression to allow ideology of any kind to place limits on science’s pragmatic pursuit of knowledge.
Moreover, it is perhaps worth noting as well that knowledge and technology, in and of themselves, are essentially value-neutral. It would be a mistake to argue that a technology (especially one with such great potential to do good) is intrinsically evil. Gandhi, for example, was highly suspicion of modern technologies.
Parel has explained the suspicion in the following way: “If human beings develop moral character, they may succeed in taking the craze out of technology, and making it into a means of freedom, equality and universal happiness” (170).
The question, then, would seem to be not whether stem cell research and cloning are good or evil; rather, it would be whether human beings will choose to use them for good or for evil purposes. Properly speaking, this question surpasses the domain of science and must be addressed by society and culture as a whole.
In any event, though, it would seem to be clear that providing a safe and moral context for science to pursue new knowledge and technology is an essential feature of modern society, and that it would be wrong to arbitrarily limit this pursuit in the name of hypothetical worst-case scenarios.
In summary, this essay has discussed the argument in favor of stem cell research and cloning. An important point that has emerged is that this argument is significantly driven by the moral imperative to alleviate suffering whenever possible. The regulatory context and the prerogative of science both bolster the argument as well, insofar as these help address competing for moral concerns and thereby indirectly enhance the strength of the moral imperative to alleviate suffering.
A key implication of the argument discussed above is that contemporary U.S. society should proceed with stem cell research in a pragmatic and non-ideological way. From this perspective, a key advantage of the argument in favor of stem cell research against the opposing argument is that the former is not ideological, whereas the latter is in fact usually ideological (or, to put it a little differently, the former is characterized by experimental openness, whereas the latter is characterized by rigid certainties).
Opponents who argue against stem cell research and cloning use Christian ethics and morality to defend their position. This doesn’t hold up to the scientific evidence presented by those who favor the research. If the argument in favor of stem cell research and cloning was to ever become ideological, then it would clearly lose this advantage that it enjoys within modern society. This would result in a stalemate, in which both perspectives would be logically and morally on the same footing and share the same merits and defects.
Devolder, Katrien, and Julian Savulescu. “The Moral Imperative to Conduct Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 15 (2006): 7-21. Print.
Lovell-Badge, Robin. “Overview: The Future for Stem Cell Research.” Nature 414 (2001): 88-91. Print.
Nizkor Project. “Fallacy: Slippery Slope.” 2012. Web. 21 Dec. 2014. http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/slippery-slope.html.
Parel, Anthony J. “Mahatma Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity.” Comparative Political Philosophy: Studies under the Upas Tree. 2nd ed. Eds. Anthony J. Parel and Ronald C. Keith. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2003. 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.
Saey, Tina Hesman. “Cloning Produces Stem Cells from Adult Skin.” Science News. 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Dec. 2014. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/cloning-produces-stem-cells-adult-skin.
Science Progress. “Timeline: A Brief History of Stem Cell Research.” 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 20 Dec. 2014. http://scienceprogress.org/2009/01/timeline-a-brief-history-of-stem-cell-research/.