In order to analyze the ethics/science controversy, it is first important to understand exactly what stem cells are. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can divide and give rise to an indefinite amount of the same type of cell. Because of these unique abilities that only stem cells have, they are seen to have great potential in the fields of both regular and regenerative medicine. Those practicing regenerative medicine aim to create “living, functional tissues to repair or replace tissue or organ function lost due to age, disease, damage, or congenital defects,” (“NIH Fact Sheets – Regenerative Medicine.”).
In other words, scientists are experimenting and finding ways to heal tissues and organs by replacing the damaged or sick cells with new, healthy ones. This is where stem cells come into play. The capability to specialize into any type of cell, and divide indefinitely will theoretically replace all the damaged cells with the newly created healthy ones. Regenerative medicine takes many forms, and countless experiments are being done to find new ways to move forward, but currently one of the most promising paths is utilizing human stem cells.
There are currently three major groups of stem cells: adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, and the controversial embryonic stem cells. Both adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are derived from adult humans. Adult stem cells are found in different places within the body, such as bone marrow, muscle, and various locations in the circulatory system.
However, the only drawback to these cells is that they can only specialize into the types of cells from where they were drawn. For example, bone marrow stem cells can only specialize into bone marrow cells. iPs cells are a more recent discovery, and are “skin or blood cells that have been reprogrammed back into an embryonic-like pluripotent state,” (“Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPS)”). These are adult cells that have been genetically altered back into an embryonic-like state.
These cells have immense potential, and in theory could get rid of the need for embryonic stem cells in the future. However, much more research and experimentation is needed before their safety can be guaranteed and they can be fully understood and properly utilized. Currently, the most useful and promising types of cells are embryonic stem cells. (Leventhal A et al.; Siegel; “Stem Cells: Frequently Asked Questions about Stem Cell Research.”; “Stem Cell Research.”)
Embryonic stem cells are drawn from embryos 5 days into the embryo’s development. (Siegel). This makes them the most accessible and readily available cells for research and treatment. These cells yield tremendous promise as they have the capability, unlike adult stem cells, to differentiate and specialize into nearly any type of cell within the body. An embryonic stem cell has the potential to differentiate into “neural, cardiac, skeletal muscle, pancreas and liver cells,” (de Wert and Mummery). Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into almost any cell in the human body, ideally allowing them to be implemented in a vast array of treatments and practical uses.
Additionally, they can divide indefinitely, in theory being able to produce a infinite supply of those types of cells. A successful application of these cells would mean an end to any disease or disorder that destroys cells. Utilizing these cells could “treat individuals with degenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, diabetes, heart disease, and spinal cord injury, caused by the destruction or dysfunction of particular cell types,” (Sussman, 1079). The potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research are very promising. However, there is substantial reason for ethical opposition.
Despite all of the potential benefits of utilizing stem cells in the future, there are numerous ethical concerns concerning the drawing out of these cells. Unlike the adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells come from 5 day-old embryos. These embryos are fertilized inside of a lab, and the donors of the eggs and sperm have provided full consent that their gametes be used for such research. However, during this process the embryos are destroyed, and this destruction of human embryos, despite for a good cause, has garnered opposition.
The ethical concern raised by those opposing stem cell research is that the embryos that are destroyed by scientists in the name of research have the potential to be fully grown human beings, thus making the destruction of said embryos a murder of innocent lives. A few questions are then raised: Whether or not embryos are to be considered human lives, and whether scientists are overlooking fundamental ethical boundaries while conducting their research (Guinan, 306).
An immeasurable amount of debates have taken place over the past century, all trying to answer this fundamental question: when does life begin? Some say it begins at conception, some say at implantation, others say at the formation of a true fetus, and some say life does not truly begin until birth. The scientific community has tried many times to answer this question, yet no definite answer seems to be wholly agreed upon. While a newly fertilized egg, or zygote, has a complete set of DNA at conception, it still has the potential to divide into 2, creating twins.
These twins are clearly not a single person and thus the formation of a zygote does not mean the formation of a single human being. However, just because the zygote can divide does not disqualify it as the beginning of life (Siegel). Additionally, some scientists argue that the zygote is just a group of cells rather than an organism, and is therefore not equivalent to a live human being. While the cells in the zygote are alive, they are not constituted of organ systems or carry out complex functions.
Other scientists counter this, claiming that the zygote behaves in such ways that ordinary human cells cannot replicate, and that the zygote is far more sophisticated and life-like (Condic). However, because it begins the formation of a single human being from two separate sex cells, the fertilization of an egg to create a zygote is the most commonly accepted idea of when life begins.
The larger questions remain unanswered. Are these scientists overstepping their boundaries, too blind by the sight of future progress to realize that what they are doing is morally wrong? Do such boundaries even exist?
The progress of science always seems to be moving too fast. This theme is one that has been seen throughout medical and scientific history, and warnings of caution have often accompanied it. One unique place that such warnings can be interpreted is Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein. The “Frankenstein argument” is one used frequently by those who oppose stem cell research.
Numerous publications and political cartoons use Frankenstein’s monster as a symbol of horror to frighten people, equating stem cell research to unknowingly creating monstrosities. However, the novel itself contains messages that are relevant to the stem cell debate. Written in 1817, during the Industrial Revolution, when new technology and scientific advances were being made in all fields, Shelley’s novel puts forth numerous warnings about the advancements of science if left unchecked.
While Shelley was not critiquing stem cell research, as stem cell derivation was not discovered until 1981 (“Stem Cell Basics I.”), it is evident she was aware of the technological advances in her time, perhaps in the field of medicine as well. She saw this progress, and while realizing the potential benefit to society such changes could pose, she also predicted that some scientists would ignore or perhaps even destroy common decency in the name of progress.
In Shelley’s cautionary tale, the main character Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist. Fascinated with alchemy and with a knack for the physical sciences, Victor becomes obsessed with trying to create life. After studying dead remains of humans and animals, and after tireless experimentation, he finally achieves his goal. He manages to reanimate decaying human body parts to create a living organism resembling man, but with gruesome, inhuman features. Rejected by Victor and society, the “monster” sets out to ruin Victor’s life, and successfully does so.
In the end, the product of Victor’s scientific breakthroughs makes his own existence miserable. The story is filled with ideas suggesting that scientific progress can be dangerous, and that caution should be exercised whenever the laws of nature are being tampered with. Frankenstein quite obviously seems to be about the danger of a scientific experiment gone wrong, but this is not Shelley’s only point in the novel. She presents the reader with numerous ways Victor could have prevented his own destruction, and implies that scientists should reconsider their actions if they find themselves in the areas where Victor failed both himself, and his own creation.
One idea Shelley presents is that of being blinded by the prospect of one’s scientific endeavors. At first, Victor is almost insanely obsessed with his project. He claims that without being “animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, [his] application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable,” (Shelley 55). Looking back on his work with the monster, he realizes that everything he did to achieve his goal would not, under ordinary circumstances, be perceived as normal, or perhaps even acceptable.
Yet it was dedication and fascination to the project that blinded him to such horror. He was drawn forward by the notion of overcoming death, yet did not stop to think about how he was getting there. He explains how he “beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life… how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brains,” (Shelley, 55).
Victor’s internal drive is so powerful he is unable to realize the horrific attributes of his research. Shelley warns scientists not to overlook each step of their process, not to justify inherently immoral procedures, no matter how beneficial the end result might be. Some projects are simply not worth the potential harm and horror that must be done to achieve them. Rather than focus just on the goals of the future, it is also important to realize how their actions will appear in hindsight. This idea carries over into the stem cell debate. The researchers are so focused on finding a cure, they might be overlooking basic human principles while conducting their research.
Rather than stopping to consider whether embryo destruction is ethical, researchers carry on, focused on the possible cures they may or may not find. While their research is very promising, in the world of “potentials,” nothing is certain, and the integrity of the journey may be far more important than the rewards of reaching the destination.
Another theme Shelley presents is that of being unappeasable with the minimum. Throughout the novel, there are numerous instances of Victor pushing his ideas past what is safe and commonplace. When creating the monster, Victor “doubted at first whether [he] should attempt the creation of a being like [himself], or one of simpler organization,”(Shelley, 57). Rather than test his idea on a smaller animal first, Victor becomes almost greedy with desire and decides to create a man. However, he chooses not just to make a man, but a creature much taller and stronger than man. This turns out to be poor choice, as all of the monster’s victims are powerless against him.
Had Victor been able to settle for a less extreme creation, it is likely that none of the unfortunate events would have transpired. However, his desire for the extreme led to his own destruction. Interestingly, Shelley seems to enforce the idea that scientists will never be satisfied with the minimum. Near the end of the novel, when the crew of the ship Victor was on threatened a mutiny to sail home, Victor challenged them all, calling them cowards and saying they should press forward.
Almost as though not learning from his own mistakes, he pressures the crew to push themselves into the extreme unknown (Shelley, 182). Shelley demonstrates here that even though Victor warns others not to make the same mistakes he did, his own actions show he is incapable of heeding his own warnings. Shelley proposes that those seeking discovery will never be satisfied; they are always seeking something greater, sometimes being unable to foresee the potential danger in the situation.
In stem cell research, the scientists are so ambitious in finding a cure, they may not have considered new problems that may arise. Even if stem cell research is allowed and new cures are found, the possible negative consequences that may come to exist are unknown. A new super pathogen may be accidentally created and released unto the world, causing death and suffering (Guinan, 305). Shelley suggests that it might be wise that scientific progress is slow, so as to prevent ambition from creating something dangerously unstoppable.
Finally, Shelley stresses that scientists need to continue to care for their achievements. It is not enough to simply create something, but it is the role of the creator to see that their creation is used justly and responsibly. Rather than care for and attend to his newly alive creature, Victor instead “rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing (his) bedchamber…” (Shelley 60).
The first experience the monster has is the rejection by his own creator, who leaves him to fend for himself. This is the first of many times the monster is spurned by ordinary people; he is chased out of a village, beaten by a family who he was anonymously helping, and he is shot after he saves the life of a child. Despite all of this, the monster gives Victor one more chance fix his mistakes.
When Victor destroys his promise to help the monster, the monster carries out his murderous rampage. The main idea Shelley presents here is that the monster is not solely at fault for Victor’s demise. The monster even claims himself that he “was benevolent and good; misery made [him] a fiend,” (Shelley, 93). Rather than being inherently evil, it was the way the world treated the monster that caused him to behave the way he did.
There are numerous instances where the reader can sympathize with monster more than Victor. The readers see that the monster was genuinely trying to be helpful to humans, but constant rejection and abuse turned him into a true monster. Shelley’s message here is clear: Scientists need to take ownership of their projects, and see to it that their discoveries are responsibly used only for the betterment of human existence. If stem cell research is going to continue, it is inevitable that there will be numerous breakthroughs and discoveries.
It is imperative that the researchers behind those discoveries are responsible for ensuring that they are used to help and heal people. New science and technology almost always has the potential for destruction, and stem cell research will likely yield some possibly destructive results (Guinan, 306). However if the scientists behind them effectively prevent themselves from making the same mistakes Victor did, they can ensure that their discoveries will cause no harm to anyone.
All of the ideas Shelley presents lead to the conclusion that scientists need to respect some kind of ethical boundary when pursuing discovery. However, this boundary is hard to define. As science evolves, culture and society evolve as well, and mankind’s perception of what is acceptable or ethical changes. This is why the stem cell debate continues today.
The debate is centered on opinions of whether or not an embryo’s existence is equivalent to a human life and whether or not the potential medical progress is worth the sacrificing of embryos. There has not yet been an officially established boundary, and what is thought to be ethical varies from person to person. If the debate is to end, in favor of either side, it is necessary to officially establish in some way what is considered ethical and what is not.
As ethics are ever changing, it is difficult to draw a distinct line scientists should not cross. Rather than drawing a line and labeling one side as acceptable and the other as unethical, it would perhaps be more efficient to hold scientists and researchers to a set of principles that can change and adapt to suit the times, something resembling the Hippocratic Oath.
This set of guidelines would hold scientists accountable for their discoveries, but also require them to reflect upon the ethics of their projects before they get started and to place the benefit of other human beings above all else. Knowing what is allowed beforehand would let scientists carry out research without challenges to their procedures, and give the public piece of mind knowing that nothing unethical is happening behind their backs.
A Hippocratic Oath for scientists has already been proposed a few times. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Rotblat suggested that such an oath would help ground new scientists, and remind them to put humanity’s best interest first (Ravid and Wolozin). Additionally, Sir David King, the scientific advisor to the UK government, introduced a code of 7 ideal principles all scientists should follow (Highfield and Fleming). Having scientists and researchers uphold an oath or code that stresses ethics and emphasizes helping others could prevent young, overly ambitious scientists from pursuing a project blindly, disregarding morality, and causing harm to life in the process.
The ethical debate that revolves around embryonic stem cell research shows that, at the very least, there are people today who share some of Shelley’s concerns. The warnings seen in Frankenstein are carried over into this modern debate. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to save lives, but their origins raise ethical concerns. While most agree that life begins at fertilization, it is debated whether or not an embryo’s existence equals that of a fully developed adult human.
The debate is cyclical; neither side ever seems to be able to fully convince the other. However, the fact that such debate exists is not entirely negative. While such intense debate may slow certain scientific progress, it shows that humans are capable of compassion, empathy, and complex thought and emotions. The debate drags on for such a long time because the topic is so complex. There is no simple answer. Each side believes they are right: the greater good versus each individual life being sacred. Eventually some kind of conclusion will be reached.
Establishing an ethical code could speed up that process, but in the end the decision has to be made by the human collective. Perhaps Victor Frankenstein’s greatest failure was losing his own humanity, and though the embryonic stem cell research debate may often be frustrating for both sides, the fact that ethics are debated is proof of mankind’s humanity.