Moral Dilemma of Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research has been a highly debated topic for many years.

In the U.S., stem cell research is at a moral impasse because many see this research as ethically mandated due to its potential for ameliorating major diseases, while others see this research as ethically impermissible because it typically involves the destruction of embryos and use of ova from women.1

Stem cell nuclear transplant is a process by which researchers remove the genetic material from a donor somatic cell and insert it into an egg that has had its own nucleus removed.2

The somatic cell nucleus becomes epigenetically reprogrammed into an embryonic-like state and from this genetically reprogrammed, unimplanted blastocyst, embryonic stem cell lines can be derived: embryonic stem cells that are genetically matched to the donor of the somatic cell, thus by passing the threat of immune rejection in future therapies.2

Currently, research is being conducted to determine if other technology can be used to obtain stem cells without destroying embryos or using non-human animal sources to acquire ova in order to reduce the moral imposition attached to stem cell research.

Potential Damage & Destruction

One of the ethical dilemmas facing stem cell research is the potential for harm women may endure.

The physical risks include (a) those associated with ovarian stimulation, including ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, abdominal pain, fatigue, mood changes, strokes, renal failure, heart attacks and possibly ovarian or uterine cancer and (b) those associated with the surgical retrieval of ova such as bleeding and hemorrhage, pelvic injury, and infection.1

The social risks to women ova providers include exploitation and undue influence due to substantive compensation and gratitude for services towards physicians, both of which may undermine the ability of some women to provide voluntary informed consent. 1 Women should be fully educated on all the potential health risks and not be coerced into donating their ova.

Another ethical dilemma associated with stem cell research is the destruction of embryos. Typically, people who believe embryos are human at the time of conception do not support the use of embryos for stem cell research. Alternatively, people who value the benefits stem cell research can possess support the use of embryos for stem cell research.

The views on moral status include the position that: (a) embryos at the moment of conception have moral status equal to persons; (b) the moral status of an entity stems from its potential for experiencing a life like ours; (c) moral status is tied to cognitive capacities such as consciousness or sentience, the capacity to feel emotions, or the capacity to have interests and desires; and (d) embryos are sacred or have symbolic weight deserving of respect.1

Unfortunately, people will never be able to come to one common consensus as to the rights of an embryo, so stem cell research will always be a topic for debate.

Embryo Substitutes

Several alternative ways to derive pluripotent stem cells have been developed to circumvent one or both of the above ethical issues by: (a) using molecular techniques to derive stem cells with destroying embryos; (b) manipulating ova to prematurely halt development; (c) using non-human animal sources of ova or ova created from the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells.1

One method is the blastocyst transfer method and blastomere biopsy which aims to use some cells from embryos to derive pluripotent stem cells while the remainder is transferred into women.1

A second technique called altered nuclear transfer uses nuclear transfer technology to create an entity with a known genetic defect that prevents normal development; such entities are non-embryos and can be used for research.1

The third technique aims to use animal ova or ova differentiated from human embryonic stem cells to circumvent the shortage of human eggs for stem cell research and research cloning.1

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