What are the arguments in favour of stem cell research?Stem Cell Research

As we have seen, the debate over stem cell research is one not merely restricted to researchers, ethicists and the courts of the land, with a number of high profile figures adding weight to the debate for both sides. One of the most prominent examples of this is the actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson‘s at just 30 years old. Despite the physical limitations the disease has had upon him, Fox has become a notable spokesperson in favour of stem cell research, establishing the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (http://www.michaeljfox.org/). The actor, along with many other Parkinson’s patients, hopes that stem cell research could offer real advances in the understanding and treatment for the condition The following clip shows Fox outlining his arguments for why he believes stem cell research is so important. Fox’s argument that stem cell research merely puts discarded embryos (that would be left to die otherwise) to good use; is just one of many put forward by researchers and supporters alike.

The ‘Waste’ Argument

The process of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) requires super ovulation treatment in order to increase the eventual probability of a successful pregnancy. However super ovulation can result in anywhere from 14-45 fertilized eggs, of which approximately only three will be implanted with the remainder being frozen for future use should the present pregnancy prove unsuccessful. Some couples may eventually use all of their created embryos due to the higher rate of pregnancy failure in IVF pregnancies. However, for couples that are successful, what becomes of their “spare” frozen embryos? Whilst parents presently face the choice as to whether to donate their embryos, discard them or donate them to research, pro-research supporters (such as Fox in the previous interview) argue that to discard the embryos and not donate them is a horrific waist in light of the benefit that it could bring to humanity. Kace, a paraplegic, echoes Fox’s call for embryo donation:
“It’s immoral that hundreds of thousands of embryos are discarded yearly instead of used to research cures for human suffering.”(Gilbert 2008)
Some have actually taken this argument further and argued that it is fundamentally wrong to support/utilise IVF but oppose research. As Brazier and Cave outline in ’Medicine, Patients and The Law”:
“It is difficult to argue that it is ethical to destroy embryos to alleviate infertility and yet unethical to destroy embryos in order to improve our knowledge and treatment of genetic disease. Those who opposed research would logically also have opposed IVF.”
However, whilst pro-researchers cite many surveys showing overall support for IVF and experimentation, donation rates amongst women undergoing IVF remain low with 59% in a survey in the Netherlands opposing research and 23% remaining unsure. This is thought to be due to many women still viewing their discarded embryos as their potential children. As such, the idea of allowing research on them would be to openly allow them to suffer. As one IVF mother phrased the dilemma:
“I want them to do research, but not on my embryos.” (Quoted in Rowland 1999)

The “Dignity” Argument

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Some have taken the previous waste argument one step further, claiming that it is actually medicine’s duty to research on stem cells in order to ensure its dignity. The concept of dignity is often used as a religious justification in opposition to stem cell research, with the Catholic Church claiming that the essence of dignity is the embryo’s potential to become a human life and having the love of God, even if its exact final form is not evident yet (Pope Benedict, 2006 quoted in Gilbert 2008). However, some scholars point to the essence of dignity in medicine to make the counter argument, claiming that the goal or dignity of medicine is to alleviate suffering. The physician should therefore see his/her work as an ultimate form of imitatio dei or “being made in the image of God”. This concept, where man finds virtue by resembling God through his actions, as well as being a core principle of Christianity is mirrored in other religions, for example, the concept of Mitzvah in Judaism. As Heschel summarises:
“To save a life is to do the work of God. To heal is to do the holy…the highest form of Imitatio Dei.”(Herschel (1985) quoted in Gilbert (2008)
Opponents to stem cell research have challenged such a view claiming that if medicine’s goal is truly to alleviate suffering then they should not be causing the suffering of embryos through their experimentation. This leads us to one of the core problems for arguments both for and against embryo research: when does an embryo become a human being and subsequently when can it experience pain/suffering? You can learn more about the religious definitions of when personhood begins and the impact that this has both legally and for opponents/proponents of stem cell research in other sections. However, proponents counter such suffering arguments by a simple balance of ‘maybe’ persons versus real people.

The ‘Suffering’ Argument

Istock ref.: 8801872 We have seen that there is much debate in both religious and scientific fields as to when an embryo/foetus becomes a person and further debate still as to at what stage they can feel pain. However, proponents of stem cell research argue that because of the extent of this debate of personhood and suffering, research should be allowed simply due to a balance of odds. Stem cell research, they claim, has the potential to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people that are living with often highly debilitating conditions. Research can therefore be justified because it would be immoral to justify the continuation of suffering of so many “proven” persons at the expense of the potential suffering of “maybe” persons/embryos (Brazier, Cave 2007). Whilst this argument may seem a harsh one, Gilbert makes the analogy of the burning research facility:
“This position leads one to some morally dangerous places. Given that the blastocysts and early embryos stored in infertility clinics do not have brains or even nerves they cannot suffer. Thus, if such a clinic were on fire, should a morally responsible person carry out the freezer with its hundreds of frozen embryos or carry out the unconscious receptionist? I would contend that the one person who can suffer (the mother, daughter, spouse, friend) is more worthy of protection that the blastocysts.”
Advocates of stem cell research have also responded with anger to accusations from stem cell opponents that this justification parallels that which the Nazi party made for killing hundreds of thousands of people deemed “life unworthy of life” in aid of the greater good of ensuring the continued prosperity of the true German (Aryan) race. As Gilbert argues:
“In my eyes, the person who equates the death of a microscopic clump of human cells with the agony of a gassed Jew who has seen his family members, community, culture and body systematically destroyed, has lost all moral authority.”
Similarly, researchers emphasise the fact that in England alone, nearly two thousand embryos are legally killed every year in abortion procedures (Brazier, Cave (2007)). Moreover, an abortion can be legally carried out up to 24 weeks or beyond in certain circumstances, even with survival rates of premature babies increasing with advents in medical care. Advocates of research ask how society can approve of the abortion of foetuses which brings no real benefit to humanity; and yet ban research on embryos limited to 2 weeks, when such research could alleviate the suffering of so many? If concerns over suffering really were so prominent, society should restrict abortion in the same way it does research (Brazier, Cave (2007)) In association with this, Gilbert and other researchers emphasise the common misconceptions with regards to embryo development; chief amongst them that as soon as sperm meets egg, a union has occurred that guarantees the development of a baby. Gilbert stresses that fertilisation is in fact a process that can take up to 4 days to complete in itself; and even after this with medical abortions excluded, the majority of ‘natural’ pregnancies do not make it to term (less than 30% in some estimates). As a result, Sandel (a Harvard University government professor) states that if we were to truly view embryos as persons capable of suffering, then natural pregnancy would become a public health crisis of epidemic proportion to the extent that “alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, In vitro fertilisation, and stem cell research combined.” (Sandel (2003) quoted in Gilbert (2008)).

The Extreme Arguments

The previous stances are those frequently cited in debates over stem cell research. However, there are of course and always will be new, alternative and potentially more extreme arguments put forward towards the debate. One such argument is the view that humanity should be viewed as having no superior moral status over other animals and should therefore be treated as such. This again however, connects to the question of when an embryo becomes a human being, with scholars claiming that human beings have moral rights by being human people and not merely human animals or, as Brazier and Cave summarise “It is the capacity to value your own existence which gives a person rights, including the right to life.” As a result, embryos and newborn infants would be deemed to lack this capacity and so cannot be classed as persons and cannot have any moral rights whether in vitro or inside the womb (in vivo). Stem cell research is therefore, completely acceptable and justified. This extreme utilisation of the personhood argument, if taken literally, could in effect legitimise infanticide and potentially the killing of other individuals deemed to lack the capacity to value their existence such as those with severe developmental or learning disabilities. This would in essence have comparisons with previously witnessed eugenic ideals, where similar justifications were made by the Nazi party for the mass slaughter of disabled children to relieve them of their “life not worth living“. However, it does serve to show how far the idea of a timeline for when an embryo/foetus achieves personhood can be taken; and as a result, how important the debate over personhood has become. A final alternative argument for stem cell research is one of simple democracy. Some in favor of research have claimed that no one is forced to participate in research. Democracy should therefore respect differences in opinion regarding morality. Stem cell research must therefore be allowed even if others do not agree with it. However, this argument also has a fundamental flaw as it in effect states that within a democracy we should be allowed to do what we wish merely because enough of us believe it to be morally justified. This has been utilised by ‘pro-life’ groups opposed to stem cell research. Brazier and Cave outline one such opposition by a pro-life campaigner:
“It is rather like saying that if a sufficient number of people decide redheads are not human and have no moral claim on society, anyone who holds that belief may kill of any redhead he meets. Of course, no ‘pro-redhead’ will be required to join in the slaughter! So what is the difference between redheaded adults and embryos?”
This campaigner believed that embryos have exactly the same moral status as an adult human, in this case, a redhead. Whilst, this counter argument may also seem equally extreme, it serves to emphasise the extent to which both sides of the debate have gone in order to argue that stem cell research is, in essence, kill or cure depending on our view of embryo status.

Take Away Facts

The principle arguments in favor of stem cell research include : The ‘Waste’ Argument The ‘Dignity’ Argument The ‘Suffering’ Argument The ‘Waste’ Argument states that to discard “spare” embryos, created but not used in in-vitro fertilization (IVF), instead of donating them for stem cell research is a horrific waist in light of the benefit that it could bring to humanity. The ‘Dignity’ Argument states that the essence of dignity in medicine is to alleviate suffering; and view his/her work as an ultimate form of imitatio dei or “being made in the image of God”. Stem cell research should therefore be permitted in order to enable the physician to fulfill this role by potentially alleviating the suffering of patients with medical conditions such as Huntington’s disease. The ‘Suffering’ Argument justifies stem cell research on the basis that it would be immoral to justify the continuation of suffering of so many “proven” persons at the expense of the potential suffering of “maybe” persons/embryos. http://www.michaeljfox.org/ (Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research) BRAZIER, M. and CAVE, E., 2007. Medicine Patients and the Law. Fourth edn. Great Britain: LexisNexis Butterworths. GILBERT, S.F., 2008, When “Personhood” Begins in the Embryo: Avoiding a Syllabus of Errors, Birth Defects Research (Part C) 84, pp. 164-173. ‘Human Embryo Research: A Global Social Experiment’ (Robyn Rowland) From ‘Bioethics: An Anthology’, edited by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999
By the end of this section, you should be able to:
  1. Outline some of the arguments that proponents of stem cell research most frequently refer to, chief amongst them: 1. The ‘Waste’ Argument 2. The ’Dignity’ Argument 3. The ’Suffering’ Argument
  2. Be able to contrast these with the arguments against such research that are outlined in a separate section.