Though it is one of the greatest scientific advancements of the 20th century, human embryonic stem cell research poses a dilemma to many eager scientists: is it ethical to conduct stem cell research, or is it a violation of citizens’ rights? The new, but highly debated research technique has many uses, including treating and understanding diseases, correcting genetic mutations in cells, and even curing cancer in the future. Even though stem cell research sounds promising in theory, there is still a wide gray area in the field due to the restraints placed by the governments of many countries. But, what exactly are the ethical dilemmas and why are they so hard to overcome?
To understand the debate about the ethics of stem cell research, one must understand what a stem cell is first. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells which have the ability to develop into a specialized cell that has a specific function in the human body. For example, skin cells are specifically designed to serve as a protective barrier for the body. Human embryonic stem cell research is conducted when a researcher collects stem cells from a human blastula, one of the first stages of a baby’s life. The blastula is then harvested, isolated, and grown in a lab. The stem cells are then manipulated to form different specialized cells, such as red blood cells and liver cells.
Embryonic stem cell research divides the public between two moral values: the act of preventing suffering by specializing stem cells to make new cells and the duty to respect a human life. In the case of the ethics of human embryonic stem cell research, neither side can be appeased. To acquire embryonic stem cells, the human blastula must be destroyed. Opponents of stem cell research see this as destroying an unborn child. On the other hand, supporters of embryonic stem cell research believe that the positives of the research outweigh the negatives. Utilizing the embryonic stem cells could potentially give rise to new medical treatments that could help a host of patients from a lifetime of suffering. The answer to this conundrum, however, relies on how a person views a blastula: does it have the status of a human being or not?
The ethical status of the embryo is, in fact, more complicated than the issue of human embryonic stem cell research. Some claim that the embryo has the status of a human being right after fertilization, while others claim that the embryo reaches that status around fourteen days after fertilization. Still, others claim that the embryo’s status changes as it develops and on the contrary, some claim that an embryo doesn’t get the status of a human at all. However divided these views may be, they all contribute to the highly complex, but ongoing issue of the ethics of human embryonic stem cell research.