Some of you might be familiar with controversy involving 'Stem cell research'. Human stem cells are derived from humans and have the capability to differentiate into different types of cells (such as blood and organs). There are two kinds of stem cells – human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and adult stem cells. The former ones are derived by destruction of an early stage embryo whereas the latter ones are derived from a tissue sample obtained from an adult. Both these types have generated controversy – the former due to the ethical and religious belief that it is wrong to destroy a human embryo, albeit with the permission of the parents, and the latter due to the fear of human cloning. The interplay between religion, ethics, legal issues, commercial interests and Government policies have made the stem cell research a very controversial topic recently.
In order to understand the controversy on stem cell research, it is important to acquire some knowledge on its fundamentals. Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are derived from blastocyst, which is the inner mass of an early cell embryo. A few days after fertilization (typically 4 to 5 days), the embryos reach the blastocyst stage and at this time they consist of about 50-100 cells. These cells would be able to differentiate into about 220 different types of cells that are found in an adult body. Hence, they have excellent capacity for self-renewal, making them attractive in degenerative medicine and post-injury tissue replacement technique. The controversy arises from the fact that while extracting out the embryonic inner mass, the embryos get destroyed, and the religious groups consider it akin to ending a human life.
The proponents of life argue that destroying an embryo is against human dignity and that one life is sacrificed for the sake of another. There are ethical and religious protests on the use and destruction of human embryo for stem cell research. This has led to the ban for stem cell research in some Western countries and some of the states of the U.S.A. In most of the Western countries in which Christianity is the primary religion, the hESC research does not get Government funding. Private funded research is allowed in most cases. This arises an inconvenient question as to, if the hESC research is deemed unethical and anti-religious in the first place, why show vague double standards in allowing private funding while stopping Government funding, as opposed to totally ban such research.
Are these embryos equivalent to a ‘person’? Various religious groups consider different timeframes about when ensoulment takes place. Some have revised the timeframe (usually to an earlier time) after scientific discoveries started to reveal the exact chronological events of human embryonic growth. Pro-life activists argue that an embryo has to be considered as a human immediately after conception and bring ethical questions about destroying that embryo, on the similar line of argument that they use while opposing abortion.
We can classify the people of this planet into three broad categories – traditional Christians, post-Christians and followers of Eastern religions, the tolerance to and acceptance of stem cell research increasing from left to right. Whereas the first category resists the creation and destruction of human embryos because they consider an embryo to be a child, the last category doesn’t object and in fact supports stem cell research due to their religious beliefs that concern reincarnation and karma. Due to this divide, some scientists are heading east, and, if the scientists in the eastern countries succeed in curing some diseases or cloning the children via stem cell research, the desperate people will also head to such countries to avail the facilities.
A more elaborate look at the voices and concerns of people of different religion and beliefs shows that the opinion of the world is certainly divided in the issue of stem cell research. Several non-Catholic Christian groups don’t mind hESC research with the consent of the mother. The religious argument against hESC research would be much stronger if all religions agreed. The problem is difficult and emotions run high. Religions are attempting to reconcile the overlapping rights of three parties: the mother, an embryo and the patient. The answer is certainly not an easy one.
Though the scientific progress in this Government-funded area of research has been promising for the cure of aforementioned diseases, it has also received its share of resistance, mainly due to the fear that man should not play God and use the adult stem cells for human cloning. Though several U.S. states and Western countries have banned human cloning, some of the Eastern countries haven’t. And that again, along the lines of hESC research policy, divides the world. The use of human cloning as a cure for certain emotional matters, such as, loss of a child or donation of bone marrow for transplant, plus the deep inner urge by the scientists to solve the ultimate challenge of nature – creation of a human – all have caused a substantial private funding in human cloning research.
Rather than think that the humans try to outsmart God by entering into his realm of creation and destruction, the people should think that it is God who is gradually revealing the nuances of his powers to humans. Such a thought would drive away the ‘Man vs God’ argument and reinforce ‘Man aided by God’ faith. After all, one can argue that, if God wants to keep his utmost secrets to himself, why can he not hide it from the humans for ever? Such a philosophical/theological thought aside, the numerous medical advancements that the stem cell research promises must allow its opponents and Government to let the scientists do their job under the watchful eyes. After all, a life saved is a life created.