Stem cell research and the Stem Cell Enhancing Act in 2006- A Policy Argument

Spring 2008

There is a pervasive controversy regarding stem cell research, as it touches on a variety of issues, from science to ethics. Stem cells serve as a type of repair system in our bodies, as they can divide without limitation, and the new divided cells can become different type of cells such as red blood cells to muscle cells as well. The embryo is the most promising source of stem cells for research.  In the United States, President Bush has clearly illustrated his place on the issue, as he restricted funding for research in 2001 and vetoed the Stem Cell Enhancing Act in 2006. Stem cell research brings in many considerations on the table- the question of how far we will allow technology take us, and the issue of the definition of life itself is constantly debated. There is a lot of support as well as opposition to the issue, and while policies have been hindered in the United States, stem cell research has been gaining much international support.

The support for stem cell research lies in the basic argument that it has the potential to have significant promises in medicine.  Because stem cells can become other types of cells after being formed, one could create muscle cells or brain cells in a lab. There are high hopes that research and technology can be used to potentially cure health problems from broken ribs to organ transplants. While the potential is illustrated, more research is needed to really experiment to see if such outcomes can occur, and that is why scientists and members in the field of medicine are urging recognition and funding for stem cell research.

Opponents of stem cell research argue that because the embryo is alive, taking stem cells from this region means that you are literally destroying human lives. Opponents are generally composed, though not limited those with conservative and or religious framework. Many argue that life starts at conception whether that conception is done naturally or in a lab; either way, you are dealing with a system that clearly manipulates humans. And because embryos have the same moral status as humans, when they are destroyed to obtain stem cells, they are destroying humans, and so in religious terms (such as in Christianity), humans cannot consent. They call the research “immoral”, and argue that if it is alive, it should be treated as one and not some medical product.

While many arguments exist for and against stem cell research, the United States congress was able to create and pass the bipartisan bill known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005. This bill would have given funding on lines of stem cells taken from discarded human embryos that were made for fertility treatments. However, it became to be known as the first bill to be vetoed by President Bush in his presidential term. He stated that while he supports science and the capability it has created for curing medical conditions, “science brings us ever closer to unlocking the secrets of human biology, it also offers temptations to manipulate human life and violate human dignity”. He echoed the same arguments made by opponents of stem cell research, and yet the issue continues to be reflected on today and proponents continue pushing federal recognition.

It is difficult to create policies regarding stem cell research because the debate has so many implications and questions unanswered, such as to what extent are human embryos so exceptional the moral costs become more important than the lifesaving medical promise that it has? There is also the fact that in an increasingly globalize world, there is more and more competition among research institutions all over the world for who can establish the most technological advances. Also, biotechnology happens to carry immense economic promise in today’s world. Stem cell research has already been granted funding in 2006 by the European Union, and the search for answers continues in many other parts of the globe including in South Korea, Israel, and Japan. In terms of competition, the United States “falling behind” and losing its place as one of the premium sites in medical research is another concern for academia and scientists.

Policy makers are also aware that if stem cell research is federally funded, they will be required to make their work public, granting closer governmental watch for the program, and therefore, power to regulate.  There are already many private research institutions, as well as those funded by states, such as in California which agreed to a $3 billion investment in stem cell research, and other states like New York and Wisconsin are likely to follow. Policies are also strongly influenced by party lines, of whether one is conservative or liberal, especially when the conservative leader of the United States has made his position so clear. But the question of ethics and prospective exploitation of the body cloud all of these arguments, and thus creates challenges for any future public policy.

We wonder if we really are in the border of being able to cure ALS or even cancer with stem cell research. We wonder if we are sure and ready enough to make some moral costs and face the social and ethical challenges that may follow. Funding and accepting stem cell research has many implications, as question of what happens next always arises in this debate. For example will cloning be the next step and how will that then affect our society? Where do we draw the lines in scientific research and its limitations? As President Bush stated, the “needs of science and the demands of conscience” makes this issue much more personal for Americans. The debate has caused personnel all over the world to continue to find reason regarding the issue, but the matter of fact is that the social and ethical challenges it implies will remain as we continue to observe the power of science and human capability.

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