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What is the Stem Cell Debate?

S. Zaimov
S. Zaimov

The stem cell debate is surrounded by scientific, religious, ethical and political controversy. Research has grown to include the use of stem cells to repair damaged parts of the human body and find cures for fatal diseases. Since some of these cells are extracted from artificially produced human embryos, however, division exists over the ethics and morality of engaging in this practice.

Stem cells have the ability to repair and renew themselves. Under the right conditions, these cells can develop or divide into new cells with special functions. The three major categories of stem cells are adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells, and embryonic “fetal” cells. The last type is less common than the other two types in terms of their use for research. The special properties of stem cells are seen to be a potential avenue to finding cures for various illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease or paralyzing spinal cord injuries. What once was a terminal illness may be treatable if stem cells can be used to find cures.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Despite these potential benefits, the use stem cells raises ethical concerns. Much of the ethical debate surrounding stem cell research is based on the use of embryonic stem cells. The question is whether it is ethical to use these stem cells, which are potential lives, to sustain the life of another. Certain religious denominations have been especially vocal in condemning the practice, arguing that all forms of human life should be protected. Politicians have often based their election campaigns on their proposed plans on the topic.

The role of the government has also been a point of controversy in the stem cell debate. This type of research can be costly. Opponents of stem cell experiments protest government support because they claim the state is giving money to the destruction of human life. Private research facilities are also sometimes scrutinized and called to be closed down. In some countries, however, the practice is considered entirely legal.

Much of the stem cell debate is related to question of what stage of development counts as a human life. Some insist that life begins right at conception, or when the sperm enters the egg, and from this vantage point these embryos are considered life. As a result, this side of the argument considers the use of embryonic stem cells as unethical. The opposite viewpoint maintains that embryos are not human until they can exist independently outside of the mother’s womb. As a result, this side of the debate finds it ethical to use stem cells to cure disease. Of course, there are a variety of opinions in between.

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