Read the following case study on Stem Cells and answer the posted questions. Think about and describe your point of view on this bioethical topic and identify any biblical reference that helped shape your perspective.
Embryonic Stem Cells
Standing in the voting booth, Raina hesitated. It was November 2, 2004, and she had to make her final decision on how to vote for California Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond measure, would fund embryonic stem (ES) cell research at facilities across the state for the next ten years. Raina knew that Proposition 71 had widespread support, including that of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and several Nobel Prize-winning scientists, but she was also well aware of the controversy surrounding ES cell research.
Well before Election Day, Raina had taken the time to inform herself about the ongoing ES cell debate. She learned that ES cell lines are obtained by removing a group of cells, called the inner cell mass, from an embryo that is about five days old (also known as a blastocyst), and growing the cells in a Petri dish. The cells are prized by researchers because they are pluripotent, meaning that they have the potential to differentiate into a wide range of different types of cells if properly stimulated. Proponents of ES cell research say that such cells could be used to cure conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and spinal cord injuries. In addition, ES cells could be studied to help scientists understand the basic processes of human development, and used to test new drugs.
ES cell research opponents say that it should be restricted because it requires the destruction of human life. Raina found this issue to be one of great concern. She learned that the ES cell lines currently used for research are obtained from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF). These embryos are voluntarily donated, and otherwise would be discarded. Raina wondered if embryos, even those so early in development, should be considered human beings. If so, then producing an excess of them for IVF and then discarding them would be wrong. Might it also be wrong to benefit from their sacrifice?
Raina had read about stem cells from other sources besides embryos. Some, known as embryonic germ cells, may be obtained from aborted or miscarried fetuses, but this source is subject to the same sort of controversy as ES cells. Some very promising results have come from research using stem cells taken from the umbilical cord and placenta, and adult tissues such as bone marrow and parts of the brain. In fact, some of these non-embryonic cells have already been used to treat medical conditions, including blood disorders, spinal cord injury and heart attack damage. Such stem cells are obtained without harming embryos or fetuses, and for this reason their use meets with few ethical objections. However, they appear to be more limited in their ability to differentiate than ES cells.
Finally, after weighing the arguments one last time, Raina cast her ballot. The next day, she learned that Proposition 71 had passed with 59% of the vote. Now it is possible that similar initiatives may appear on the ballots of other states.
- How do you think Raina voted on Proposition 71? How would you have voted? Why?
- Do you think that a five-day-old embryo should be accorded the status of a human person? If not, why not? If so, do the potential benefits of ES cell research outweigh the ethical objections? Explain.
- Should ES cell research prove fruitful, it raises the issue of a particular type of cloning known as therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning would not result in the production of a new human being, but it would mean creating an embryo from which ES cells could be removed that would match the cells of a person’s own body. This would prevent the rejection of transplanted cells by the immune system of the recipient. Would you support the use of therapeutic cloning in order to produce ES cells for treatment of disease or injury? Why or why not?