Medical Ethics: Stem Cell Technology

Stem cell technology has already demonstrated its potential to revolutionize modern medicine. The latest indications are that embryonic stem cell research holds the key to eliminating neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, many types of cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, Huntington's, Sickle Cell, and Tay-Sachs disease.

Furthermore, stem cell technology will eventually enable victims of traumatic paralysis to recover use of their limbs and even offer hope to many thousands of patients in need of organ donations who die every year before a suitable organ becomes available, by making it possible to replace their failing hearts, lungs, livers, and kidneys with synthetically grown organs (Kaku, 1999).

Critics suggest that developing technology based on embryonic stem cells is immoral, primarily because they accept the Vatican's traditional position that human life begins at the moment of conception. Proponents of stem cell medical technology maintain that medical ethicists have already developed appropriate guidelines to regulate stem cell research in the same way that other medical ethics issues are incorporated into modern research guidelines (Abrams & Bruckner, 1983).

The controversy surrounding the ethics of stem cell research transcend the field of medicine, because they raise legal issues at the core of our constitutional system. Secular medical ethicists define life much differently than traditional religious philosophers, in that scientists employ objective criteria like the development of neural structure, circulation, brainwaves, and the concept of consciousness or sentience. Religious philosophers object to any research use human tissue from the moment it is fertilized, at which point they consider it exploitation of a human being who is fully entitled to human rights and to the protection of law (Sagan, 1997).

The imposition of religious definitions into secular laws violates the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of Church and State upon which the United States was originally founded. At present, federal funding restrictions passed by the Bush administration severely constrains the field of embryonic stem cell research, forcing some patients to seek derivative therapies abroad, where valuable stem cell research continues without governmental interference.

The medical value of stem cells lies in their recently discovered ability to develop into different types of living tissue in a way that permits us to direct their development into specific tissues. If these avenues are allowed to be pursued, they will allow us to seed the synthetic growth of replacement organs in the same way that we already grow partially synthetic human skin to repair burns (Kaku, 1999).

Presently, the only types of stem cell derivative therapies eligible for federal funding are those for which adult stem cells are useful. Adult stem cell procurement requires painful extraction of bone marrow or organ biopsies from donors; they are also far less useful for the most beneficial potential uses of stem cell technology. Whereas embryonic stem cells derived from embryonic tissue are practically unlimited in their ability to develop into myriad types of human tissue, adult stem cells have much more limited flexibility by comparison (Kaku, 1999). Germ cell lines have more potential than adult stem cells but less potential than embryonic stem cells; they are generally procured from fetal chord blood and placental tissues. Primarily for these reasons, the controversy pertaining to the ethical issues posed by stem cell research for medical purposes focuses on embryonic and fetal stem cells: they represent the fullest potential for medical advancement and at the same time, they raise the issue of defining the point of gestation where human life can be said to begin (Sagan, 1997).

The religious definition of the moment of conception as the beginning…