Stem cells are cells that have a reproduction potential into any other type of cell. Fetal stem cells are harvested from growing fetuses either created in vitro or from embryos that have been aborted and are less than 5 days old.
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There are two types of fetal stem cells, namely; pluripotent cells harvested from blastocyst’s inner cell in a fetus. On the other hand, Hematopoietic cells are harvested from the umbilical cords blood immediately after delivery.
They are used in research related to treatment of blood disease like anemia (Harris, 2008).
These cells divide indefinitely to produce either similar or different types of cells. Fetal stem cells develop and mature into different types of cells. They can be used to renew damaged cells; they thus help in the treatment of degenerative disease conditions like Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. They are also used in the treatment of injuries, physical and mental disabilities acquired from burns, brain injuries, and spinal cord damage.
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The harvested stem cells are frozen for future research and stored in the laboratory.
Through stem cell research and experiments, scientists believe that they can create human organs as well as treat injuries and diseases affecting the muscles, brain, and nerves.
Currently research on fetal stem cells is conducted on rats because of the ethical issues associated with harvesting cells from fetuses.
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According to Harris, (2008), stem cell research involving human fetuses has stirred debate in Canada about its moral acceptability. The policies related to stem cell research were developed in a highly contentious environment. There are various ethical research norms entangled in this process like autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice.
Autonomy manifests itself as respect for an individual in the ethics principles involving human beings.
Fetal stem cell research requires stakeholders to consider the persons affected the results by this research positively, either directly or indirectly. Individuals and organizations who regard embryos’ as beings having autonomy rights accord them protection.
Autonomy requires acknowledgement of other peoples dignity and value and an obligation to treat others as ends in themselves and not instruments to achieve others objectives.
In stem cell research, respect for autonomy involves the relationship between scientific research and the public through emphasis on the importance of research and the fruits acquired for the benefit of all (Hilary, Kathryn, & Ruth, 2004).
Autonomy guides the existing relationship between scientific researchers and their subjects. Informed consent requirement protects gamete donors.
Considering the nature of fetal stem cells, researchers should specify the purpose for which they are harvesting the stem cells. For example, they should explain to the donor that the cells will be kept indefinitely, and give the possible uses of the cells.
Researchers should also clarify if they want the cells for commercial or clinical purposes.
Through the principles of toleration and pluralism, it enables donors to express autonomy through having the ability to choose. On the other hand, stem cell research is concerned about potential benefits to individuals who are affected either directly or indirectly by medical conditions that deny them the ability to be autonomous. From the researchers’ point of view growth on the body of knowledge and lead to realization of treatment to better the society’s well being (Hilary, Kathryn, & Ruth, 2004). On the other hand, embryos are not capable of giving consent and lack independent autonomy. Donors are thus allowed to give voluntary and informed consent.
Beneficence requires that the research is aimed at achieving good results. It compels human beings to engage in the quest for betterment of the human race (Hilary, Kathryn, & Ruth, 2004).
The researchers should offer a promise of social benefits before the commencement of the research.
The potential benefits should be stated clearly and the potential harms resulting from the research.
The researcher should also explain the extent to which the benefits of the study outweigh its harms. Stem cell research promises significant benefit in the field of medicine to the society. The potential of alleviating suffering through improvement of general health is overrated. If there are no studies indicating violation of human dignity in the process of harvesting stem cells, the principle of beneficence provides ethical grounds for the development of the research. A woman has millions of ova and a man has millions of sperms that are flushed out before fertilization. Human beings do not intent to see each of the gamete cells develop to make a new person. The excesses in production should relieve human beings from considering each gamete as a human person.
The fetal stem cell research outcome has the potential for reconstruction of degenerated human tissues and organs in the near future.
This will help relief suffering, prolong life, and improve health. Christians who support stem cell research base their arguments on the principle of beneficence demonstrated by the Good Samaritan in the bible.
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The priest did harm the already hurt man on the road side and simply by-passed him.
On the contrary, the Good Samaritan offered to help through medical care to alleviate pain of the suffering man and help him regain his health. Christians consider the accruing medical benefits of the fetal stem cell research. The results will improve the lives of the current and future generation and save them from physical pain and suffering caused by degenerative conditions.
It refers to an equitable distribution of benefits and risks realized from stem cell research project.
This principle requires countries that prohibit stem cell research to be the last to benefit from the therapies developed from research processes in other countries.
If prohibitive countries benefit first, it is unfair because they will be reaping benefits from others risks. At the initial stages, stem cell treatment will only be accessible to the financially strong people.
Because of immune rejection, individuals cannot have equal access to the fetal stem cells treatment.
For example, the African-American beneficiaries are likely to have less cases of immune rejection than people from other ethnic backgrounds. The proposed strategy to solve this problem is to include stem cells that would be of benefit to the greatest population. The stem cell banks will benefit most people in the locality from which the stem cells have been harvested.
Nations which support research and those that outlaw the research may face a dilemma in a situation whereby this research produces positive therapeutic results.
They will have to deliberate between providing the therapy to their citizens or watch their citizens suffer from treatable conditions.
In reality, the rich will travel and seek treatment abroad while the poor are likely to suffer.
Non-maleficence Non-maleficence principle asserts that the treatment derived from fetal stem cells is wrong.
In addition, it brings out the idea that stem cell research is unethical because it results to killing of a human embryo.
The pro-life individuals consider the embryo as an autonomous individual with a soul. They consider the process of harvesting stem cells from a fetus as murder because the embryo dies in the extraction process.
The proponents of non-maleficence in stem cell research compare it to the lampshades that were made using human skin during the Nazi genocide.
Although they were useful and attractive, a human being was killed to necessitate their construction (Le Roy, 2004).
Philosophers argue that the embryo should accorded respect just like other human tissues because it carries a potential to develop into a person and also the symbolic meaning attached to it by the society.
The principle of do no harm is violated when the pre-embryo is denied personhood. Regarding the embryo as a mere instrument open to use in the process of acquiring personal objectives takes way its potential as a human life.
Another contentious issue is that creation of human embryo in order to destroy it does not show respect to the embryo. Scientists argue that this process is carried out for the benefit of the society. On the other hand, a potential human being is used as an instrument for the benefit of others (Le Roy 2004). Fetal stem cells research is currently faced by various concerns on its morality questions related to use of human tissues in laboratory practices. Despite the moral issues raised, the benefits of the research outweigh the harm caused. This is through the expected medical benefits. For instance, the stem cells will be used in treatment of degenerative diseases which have become chronic, claiming lives of many individuals and causing untold suffering and pain.
Harris, D. (2008). Contemporary issues in healthcare law & ethics. 3 ed. Chicago, IL: Health Administration Press.
Hilary, B., Kathryn, E. & Ruth, R. (2004). Justice, ethnicity, and stem-cell banks. The Lancet, 16(364), 9429.
Le Roy, K. (2004). Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Intercultural Perspective. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 14(1), 1-22.