Stem cells are highly controversial cells that have the potential to treat and even cure certain cell-related neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (Devitt, 2006, p 14). Stem cells are identified by two main characteristics: they are undifferentiated cells that can replicate through mitosis, and they have the potential to become specialized cells that can be induced to become tissue or organ specific cells (The National Institute of Health, 2009, Introduction). The significance of stem cells is their ability to be used in regenerative cell replacement therapy (The National Institute of Health, 2009, Introduction).This means that stem cells can be injected into the body to replace damaged or dysfunctional cells in cell-based diseases. Stem cells are used for many research and medical advances. The use of stem cells can be used in the discovery and testing of drugs (Devitt, 2006, p 13). Furthermore, it can speed up the screening process of testing chemicals that can be used to treat diseases (Devitt, 2006, p 12). There are three types of stem cells: embryonic, adult and induced pluripotent cells (Robinson, 2009). The most controversial of the three types, embryonic stem cells, are debatable because, in the process of extracting cells from the embryo, the embryo itself is destroyed (Klusendorf, 2005, p 22). The people who believe that life begins at the moment of conception – the moment where the sperm cell enters the ovum – follow the pro-life position and believe that this process is equivalent to killing a human life (Robinson, 2005). These people do not support the research of human embryo research. The people who believe that life begins later in the pregnancy support the pro-choice position (Robinson, 2005) and believe that the research of these pre-embryos is essential to further understand the capabilities of embryonic stem cells (Devitt, 2006, p 11).
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Embryonic stem cells yield many pros and cons. The process of creating these stem cells involve the annihilation of embryos, however, it poses a breakthrough in the scientific world. The question of the humanity of an embryo must be asked. If the embryo is determined to be human, then the acts of the scientific world in advancing embryonic stem cells would be immoral. On the other hand, if the embryo is not considered human, then the acts against embryos are not immoral (Robinson, 2009). Embryonic stem cells can be induced to form 220 different types of cells that are in the body (Robinson, 2009). This means that embryonic stem cells can replace defective cells with new healthy cells to potentially result in permanent treatment (Devitt, 2006, p 13).
The pro-life stance does not believe in the destruction of embryos for research. It believes that human embryos are vulnerable living beings that must be protected from exploitation (Klusendorf, 2005, p 21). From the moment of conception, human embryos are no less than human, thus killing the being is equivalent to killing a newborn or a child (Robinson, 2005). Additionally, killing an embryo for its stem cells is morally wrong because it does not treat the being with the respect it deserves (America, 2004, p 51). Although the benefits of embryonic stem cells may be great, the means of obtaining the results are immoral and inconsiderate. The embryo has the right to live the same life all humans live and by taking its life, it is deprived of this right.
The pro-choice stance believes that embryos are not human beings, only potential human beings (Robinson, 2005). The embryo is merely just a ball of undifferentiated cells which can help treat and cure cell-related diseases. Pro-choice supporters believe that human life begins later on in the pregnancy (Robinson, 2005). Therefore, a human life is not taken when research on embryos is done. In the process of in vitro fertilization, an excess amount of embryos are created in case the first procedure is not successful or in case the couple would like another child (Robinson, 2005). These embryos are frozen until needed. Embryonic stem cells come from these excess embryos at fertility clinics (Kinsley, 2006, p 29). Since the embryos were destined to be destroyed anyways, it is logical to simply harvest stem cells and have research done to improve human lives and to fully understand the cells possibilities (Devitt, 2006, p 12).
Adult stem cells
The two other types of stem cells, adult and induced pluripotent stem cells provide the scientific and medical world with options. Adult stem cells from a variety of tissues in the body, like embryonic stem cells, have the capability of differentiating into more specific types of cells (Davenport, 2004, p 17). These adult cells do not pose a moral question and have been researched for two decades longer than embryonic stem cells (Robinson, 2009). However their flexibility is limited as they do not differentiate and replicate as fast as embryonic stem cells. Discovered in 2007, induced pluripotent stem cells are reprogrammed adult somatic cells (The National Institute of Health, 2009, Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells). Induced pluripotent stem cells are identical to embryonic stem cells in the aspect of characteristics, ability and potential to differentiate, but are the less controversial than embryonic stem cells (Stem cell week, 2010). However abnormalities with respect to programmed cell death pose a threat to the integrity of the stem cells and, because of how recent induced pluripotent stem cells are, more research must be done to determine the cause of this setback (Stem cell week, 2010). If research on this type of stem cell develops as planned it would substitute the need for embryonic stem cells in the future (Robinson, 2009). Embryonic stem cells are not the only means of obtaining stem cells, and the scientific world should consider the other less controversial methods to benefit human lives.
In conclusion, the use of stem cells in the research of the human brain and body pose many controversial questions. The pro-life supporters believe that the human embryo should not be taken advantage of. It is a human being with its own rights from the time of conception. Would it be right to take the parts of other human beings without consent? That is basically what scientists and researchers are doing when they extract stem cells from embryos. On the other hand the pro-choice supporters refute that the advances that can be made from these embryonic stem cells cannot be avoided and can potentially cure millions of people that are suffering. Would it be right to deprive humanity from a cure of incurable diseases? This is technically what scientists are doing by not extracting and researching stem cells from embryos. Embryonic stem cells are just one of the three types of stem cells. Adult stem cells have similar characteristics as embryonic stem cells, but are less flexible in the aspect of differentiation and replication. Induced pluripotent stem cells have identical characteristics as embryonic stem cells however research has just begun on these types of stem cells. Nevertheless, ultimately “the ends do not justify the means” (Robinson, 2005).
Bethesda, MD. In Stem Cell Information Web. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009 Retrieved from http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/basics10
Bethesda, MD. Stem Cell Basics: Introduction. In Stem Cell Information Web. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009 Retrieved from http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/basics1
Devitt, T, Klusendorf, S, Kinsley, M, & America. (2007). Human embryo experimentation. United States: Thomson Gale.
“Long-term Comparisons of iPSC and hESC Conducted to Assess Therapeutic Potential.” Stem Cell Week (2010): 18. General OneFile. Web. 29 Apr. 2010
Robinson, B.A. (2005, September 18). Human embryo research all sides to the disputes. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/res_emb.htm
Robinson, B.A. (2008, February 22). The Properties and potential of adult and embryonic stem cells. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/res_stem18.htm
Robinson, B.A. (2009, March 10). Stem cell research: all viewpoints. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/res_stem.htm