Disagreements between the scientific community and people of faith have recently been reignited through attempts to use embryonic stem cell research as a method of advancing cures and treatments against certain medical conditions. With President Barack Obama’s removal of the eight-year ban on embryonic stem cell research established by former President George W. Bush, pro-life groups across the country are strengthening their efforts against what they see as an attack on the right to life. “I believe that a human embryo is worthy of legal protection,” Senator Matt Bartle told the Washington Post in August of 2005. “Western medicine has been founded on a principle: First, do no harm.”
The strongest opposition to embryonic stem cell comes from social conservatives and the majority of society’s people of faith, which see the procedure as a destruction of life. However, there are people of faith who consider embryonic stem cell research a method of improving life, rather than a depravation of it.
“It’s saving a life,” Crystal Perez, 23, says. “Why wouldn’t you be for something like that? I know religion relies on faith and God, but if there is a way to save a life, then you should go ahead and do it. The younger generation, we know about the research being done and what it does. As the generations come and go, we progress. A lot of the older people stick to their ways and don’t want to adapt to what’s new out there.”
Stem cells give scientists the ability to take undifferentiated cells—cells that have not yet developed to perform their specific function, such as a skin cell—and transplant them into patients in need of surgical procedures. According to the stem cell basics website, “stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. Stem cells are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods of time.”
“The American Medical Association supports biomedical research on stem cells and has encouraged strong public support of federal funding for this research,” Dr. Joseph Heyman, Board Chair of the American Medical Association said in a March 2009 press release. “Stem cell research holds great promise to treat diseases that science has so far been unable to cure.”
For doctors, having the ability to transplant such cells into living organisms reduces the risk of post-surgery complications. For instance, if a patient were in need of a liver transplant, there is a risk that the body will reject the organ, making the transplant unsuccessful. With stem cells, doctors would be able to implant these cells into the damaged area and allow them to grow into specialized cells, which in turn would repair the damaged area without the risk of rejection.
The opposition to stem cell research is focused mainly on embryonic stem cell research, rather than adult stem cell research. Though most agree on the promising benefits of stem cells, controversy arises over disagreements about how embryonic cells are cultivated. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), embryonic stem cells are “derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized.” The stem cells come from a structure called a blastocyst, formed in a four to five-day-old human embryo in in-vitro fertilization. Opponents to the cultivation of these cells argue that the embryos are the beginning of life, even though they are not fertilized in a woman’s body. The NIH, as other scientific sources such as www.medicalnewstoday.com, have confirmed that in a normal pregnancy the blastocyst phase is followed by implementation of the embryo into the uterus at which point it becomes a fetus. It is because of this process that opponents argue that stem cell research ends lives. Opponents believe a more reasonable solution would be to use adult stem cells which are significantly similar to embryonic stem cells.
“I firmly believe in the dignity and intrinsic worth of every human being throughout all stages of development,” said 26-year-old Anthony Andora. “I am all for medical and scientific advancements that improve quality of life and help to cure and remedy the illness and suffering of others. That being said, I cannot support such research when the cost of improving a life is the destruction of another. Embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of human life at its most fragile and vulnerable state and I cannot support it. Adult stem cell research is not fraught with the same unpayable price and is something I am in favor of, as long as no life is harmed at any stage of human development.”
According to an article published on www.religioustolerance.org, “Research using adult cells has a two decade head start on embryonic stem cells, thus the potential treatments have already advanced to human trial stage.”
However, adult stem cells are “limited in flexibility” because they are only able to develop into a certain amount of cell types. According to the NIH, adult stem cells have been found to have the ability to “maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.” Also known as somatic cells, adult stem cells are derived from various tissues and organ systems such as the liver, skeletal muscle, intestine and retina. Since this method does not require the removal of cells from an in-vitro fertilized embryo, it is more easily accepted by social conservatives.
While embryonic stem cells could be a major breakthrough in the treatment–and possibly even the cure–for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and sickle cell anemia, the ethical concerns over the source of the stem cells should not be overlooked. Former President Bush never wearied of expressing his opposition to the procedure. “While we must devote enormous energy to conquering disease, it is equally important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by the new frontier of human embryo stem cell research,” President Bush said. “Even the most noble ends do not justify any means.” So the debate rages on with intensity between two groups who have humanity’s interest at heart.