Issues Generated by Stem Cell Research

What is the value of this clump of cells? Another human, or a new hope for the diseased and the dying?


Issues generated by stem cell research are among the most profound and contentious ever encountered in Bioethics. Debates center on the moral status of these pre-implanted embryos that are now stored in in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. While many believe that life begins at conception as the sperm fertilizes the ovum, compelling issues related to the potential of human life, such as when does human life actually begin, have emerged at the forefront of the debate. Profound questions like this have no definitive answers but have created significant tension within our society. It is important for us all to consider these questions carefully. Our answers are likely to lie in our religious and cultural persuasion.

Deriving stem cells from embryos raises many other difficult philosophical, ethical, legal, and social questions which should be considered:
  • What is personhood and when does it begin?
  • What is the moral status of a blastocyst?
  • What is the moral status of the more than 400,000 100–200 cell embryos stored frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks in many infertility clinics?
  • Should embryos be protected under the same laws that govern research on human subjects?
  • Should federal funds in the US be devoted to support research in this area or should there be an outright ban on all such research?
  • Should private labs experimenting with human embryonic stem cells be subject to government oversight?

The recent development of iPS technology which involves the generation of pluripotent stem cells without the use of pre-implanted embryos or destruction of a blastocyst elicits another set of ethical concerns. These concerns raise new questions including:
  • If iPS or other types of pluripotent cells eventually could be manipulated to create the equivalent of a human germ cell or embryo, what, if any, would be the difference between a natural and created human embryo?
  • Will iPS and other “engineered” stem cell types behave in the same capacity as embryonic stem cells?
  • On a broader level, given the myriad of important issues raised: does society have the right or obligation to limit or restrict the development of technology?

And now, assume for the moment that some type of potential stem cell treatment has become available but is yet to be tested and approved by the FDA:
  • Should a desperate patient be given this unproven therapy?
  • What animals, e.g., mice or non-human primates, should be used to determine the safety and efficacy of this potential stem cell therapy?

These questions and others will be discussed in Supplement 2 on Animal Rights and Welfare and in Module 8 that discuss Applications of Stem Cell Science.

Thought Question

  • In a pluralistic country such as ours, how should the government regulate stem cell science when there are so many diverse cultural and religious perspectives?

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