What is the Basis for the Stem Cell Controversy?

Jessica Ellis

The stem cell controversy surrounds several basic issues regarding the use of human stem cells in medical research. Largely, proponents of both sides suggest that viewpoints on stem cell research must be determined by the individual’s moral and ethical beliefs. When stem cell research is tied to legal issues and government funding, however, the stem cell controversy becomes a much larger debate.

Typically, embryonic cells used in research are the by-product of fertility treatments.
Typically, embryonic cells used in research are the by-product of fertility treatments.

Stem cells are a type of genetic material found in humans and animals. These cells are unique because they can divide and modify themselves in order to repair tissues or create more cells in case of a deficiency. For this reason, scientists have found that stem cells are uniquely suited to treating many blood, tissue, and organ disorders, and may hold the cure to certain genetic or acquired diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. Adult stem cells grow in many bodily tissues, and are typically extracted and modified without harming the donor. Few critics find adult stem cell therapies and research to be highly controversial, leaving far more of the argument in the area of embryonic stem cell research.

With IVF, fertilized eggs are placed into a woman's uterus.
With IVF, fertilized eggs are placed into a woman's uterus.

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Embryonic cells are found in eggs shortly after fertilization occurs. Many scientists believe these cells may be uniquely beneficial, because they can be modified to create any type of cell in the body. Scientific research using embryonic cells is considered a vital part of improving medical capabilities, according to many experts. In the process of extracting the cells, however, the fertilized embryo is destroyed, which some critics equate to abortion, and some also believe is a terrible misuse of human life.

Some of the issues that surround the stem cell controversy are similar to those regarding abortion. According to many religions and ethical systems, life begins at fertilization. If this is true, any intentional measure to stop development after conception is considered to be destroying a human life.

Other critics do not have a moral issue with stem cell research, but are afraid of the precedent for human experimentation. Some critics may support the idea of research, but want strict and severely imposed legal guidelines that would prevent genetic experimentation such as cloning and would ensure that the embryos are only collected from proper sources. Preventing stem cell research from becoming a slippery slope to human genetic experiments is considered a major point in the stem cell controversy.

Typically, embryonic cells used in research are the by-product of fertility treatments. In vitro fertilization involves many eggs being fertilized and placed into a woman’s womb, in order to ensure that at least one will implant. The eggs that do not implant during the treatment are often given to stem cell researchers, as they are no longer viable for implantation. It is important to understand that most experts agree that only discarded eggs should be used for research.

Government funding for stem cell research is a tricky area because of the stem cell controversy. In order to determine laws and funding, governments must debate and come to a consensus not only on whether embryonic research should be supported, but under what guidelines. In the United States, many individual state chose to fund research despite a federal ban on funding handed down by President George W. Bush. In Sweden and the United Kingdom, funding supports embryonic research despite the stem cell controversy, while many other countries including Germany, Ireland, and Portugal restrict or ban the practice.

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What are the laws and ethical aspects of therapeutic cloning?

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