Stem Cell Research

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Stem cells are cells in which the full genetic potentials of an organism are present and available. In the process of development from a fertilized ovum to a mature organism, stem cells reproduce themselves and then groups of them differentiate by a process that "turns off" some genes and leaves others functioning. Researchers are currently unable to reverse this process in such a way that, e.g., skin cells could be harvested, reverted to a more basic (or stem) status, and then encouraged to differentiate in such a way as to provide cells suitable for the repair of heart muscles or the nerve cells in a severed spine. The most direct way to get cells for repair of injured organs would be to provide suitable stem cells.

The main source of human stem cells for research purposes is embyronic tissue, often tissue that is harvested from aborted or miscarried fetuses. Social conservatives have an intense opposition to abortion and see the appropriation of stem cells for research and/or therapy based on cells drawn from aborted embryos as immoral. As a result George W. Bush has imposed strict limits on stem cell research with federal funds and once made a nationally televised Presidential address to set forth that policy. Individuals concerned about medical research, including prominent Republicans such as Nancy Reagan, widow of former Republican President Ronald Reagan who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, a brain disorder which stem cell reseach may help to cure, have sought to make stem cell's more available for research.

The issue at the center of this controversy is whether it is morally justifiable to kill a potential human being. In nature, many fertilized ova never attach to the wall of the womb and most of those die. (They occasionally wind up attached in an inappropriate place and such pregnancies can be medically difficult to manage.) But deliberately producing a fertilized ovum with the object in mind of letting it develop into an embryo and then "harvesting" that embryo seems to many to be an instance of homocide, and a crime as morally deplorable as killing some prisoner just because someone is willing to pay for the prisoner's heart or other organs. On the other hand, a great number of fertilized ova have been produced as a result of programs intended to help infertile couples produce their own children. Not all of the embryos are used, and sooner or later they will die or be killed to dispose of them. Proponents of moving ahead with stem cell research argue that harvesting some stem cells from an embryo that is sure to die is no more immoral than is harvesting the heart of a teenager who has been rendered brain dead in a motorcycle accident.

Limits on stem cell research have put many U.S. biotechnology firms at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their European and Asian counterparts that have less strict restrictions on such research.

Stem Cell Research in Fiction

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