Embryonic stem cell research has generated a significant amount of controversy and debate among its supporters and opponents. This controversy becomes intense over the question of whether the American federal government should fund such research. At the center of this debate is a complex set of ethical, political, and legal issues.
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue that such research may help cure diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes, and it offers scientists an opportunity to advance their understanding of genetic disorders. In addition, the research will lead to intervention whereby damaged tissues are replaced, and transplanted organs are created from a patient's own cells, solving the problem of tissue and organ rejection.
The opposition to this research is based on the argument that deriving embryonic stem cells leads to the destruction of a human embryo, which is equivalent to murder. Opponents further maintain that the human embryo deserves the same respect and rights as a fully developed human being, thus creating and then murdering human embryos for the benefit of another is unethical. Finally, critics note that research on adult stem cells hold the same scientific premise without the attendant ethical problems.
President George W. Bush in August 2001 declared that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research would be limited to certain stem cell lines already in existence prior to August 9, 2001. On that day, President Bush presented a summary of stem cell research, its potential benefits, and the sources of stem cells. He noted that federal funds were important for the advancement of bio-medical research.
President Bush declared that this decision allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life. This policy was aimed to prevent taxpayer dollars from being used to destroy human embryos.
He indicated that the federal government would continue to support research on stem cells derived from other sources, such as: The umbilical cord blood, placentas, and adult and animal tissues. However, no executive order for this policy was issued and it was simply announced in a speech.
Under the Bush guidelines, federal funds could only be used for research on stem cell lines that:
( 1 ) Have been derived with the informed consent of their donors;
( 2 ) Have been obtained from embryos created for reproductive purposes prior to August 2001 (amounted to about 64 to 71 stem cell lines taken from previously destroyed embryos) that were no longer needed for such purposes;
( 3) Have not been denoted as a result of financial inducements; and
( 4 ) have not been derived from embryos created solely for research purposes.
Scientists have pointed out the fallacy in thinking that the stem cell lines were sufficient for both sustained research and differentiation into each one of the numerous cell types. President Bush's statement was essentially a political compromise, underscoring on the one hand his pledge to protect the innocent future lives of embryos, while at the same time acknowledging the medical breakthrough that embryonic stem cell research can offer.
However, the moral justification, which Bush vehemently promoted, cannot be applied to adult stem cell research, which is a fertile and ethically-secure source for regenerating various tissues. Another moral issue that Bush's policy raises is a question about an apparent inconsistency in the President's position.
If it is morally wrong to create new cell lines because of the future unethical destruction of viable embryos, then is it not also wrong to use cell lines that were created from the past unethical destruction of viable embryos? Bush's policy is the result of two of his apparent beliefs about morality. First, he appears to believe that generating new cell lines is morally prohibited because of the required killing of viable embryos, which might have become persons if they had been implanted.
Moreover, the claim that research is morally permissible on the already developed cell lines seems to stem from Bush's second belief that although killing embryos for scientific reasons is morally wrong, if they are already dead, then it is permissible to use the cell lines or test data that result from the killing.
Therefore, according to the very theory of complicity adopted by President Bush, his decision to provide federal funds for embryonic stem cell lines made him and the federal government complicit in the destruction of those embryos. The president seems to have misunderstood and misapplied the theory of complicity that he adopted and therefore to have developed a flawed ethical justification for his stem research policy.
If Bush believed that destroying a human embryo is ethically wrong, then destroying a much more developed human fetus is equally, if not more ethically wrong. His decision on the policy is ethically inconsistent. Scott Rosenberg pointed out that thousands of embryos are destroyed through IVF procedures, and if destroying embryos is destroying human life, then Bush should be against IVF and should have also called for the closing of fertility clinics.
President Bush's policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is flawed, and these flaws occur in three areas: scientific, political, and ethical. In implementing his policy on stem cell research, President Bush appears to have ignored or abrogated his responsibly to carefully consider the scientific expertise, the ethical merit and the political leadership required to craft a national stem cell policy.
President Obama, on the other hand, favors all types of stem cell research. In a press release, dated June 16, 2004, the then-senator Obama said, referring to the Bush policy on stem cell research:
"This bill affects diseases that attack Americans regardless of their gender, age, economic status,ethnicity, race or political affiliation. This is about a commitment to medical research under strict federal guidelines. I call on leaders in Illinois and President Bush in Washington to stop playing politics on this critical issue and expand the current policy on embryonic stem cell research so we can begin finding the cures of tomorrow today." - Barack Obama, Stem Cell Research Bill press release, June 16, 2004
Stem cell research, while still in its formative years, has the hope to treat illnesses from heart problems to cancer and even HIV. But because the cells are taken from human embryos, the discipline raises tricky moral issues, most important being: should taxpayers finance the research?
Bio-medical technology that manipulates human cells certainly raises important ethical and moral questions. The moment of the formation of human life is blurred, with some believing that it is formed at conception, and others claiming that a person is born when an egg is fertilized. President Obama, in March 2009, reversed the Bush ban stating that his administration would make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.
Scientists have only recently started experimenting with embryonic stem cells. They are not at present used to cure anything, and there are many essential technological hurdles which exist and lie between today's science and the prospective medicine of tomorrow. Stem cell research does hold promise, but the cures are years away if they come at all. Critics of Obama's policy maintain that human embryos do not have to be involved in getting the benefits of stem cell research. Scientists maintain that adult stem cells, which are present in the intestinal lining and bone marrow, have similar curing effects as embryonic stem cells do.