There has in recent years been about the attempts by biotech corporations to patent natural processes or entities – genes, for instance. I happen to think that such patents are wrong and should not be allowed. In the Brüstle case, however, the patent was not for a natural process or entity but for a laboratory technique. And Greenpeace did not challenge it on the grounds that it was a natural process but on the grounds that stem cell research amounted to the ‘commercialization of human embryos’ and hence of human beings. In this, its argument is both muddled and dangerous.
Embryonic stem cell research has long been controversial. Conservatives, theologians and pro-life groups maintain that blastocysts – clumps of cells so small that they are virtually invisible to the naked eye – are really tiny human beings. Stem cell research is immoral, they claim, because in harvesting stem cells from blastocysts, scientists are creating and disposing of human beings.
This primer on stem cells is intended for anyone who wishes to learn more about the biological properties of stem cells, the important questions about stem cells that are the focus of scientific research, and the potential use of stem cells in research and in treating disease. The primer includes information about stem cells derived from embryonic and non-embryonic tissues. Much of the information included here is about stem cells derived from human tissues, but some studies of animal-derived stem cells are also described.
It is an argument that turns ethical reality on its head. Not only is it absurd to imagine that a barely-visible bundle of cells is a human being, but there is nothing new in creating and disposing of embryos. It happens routinely, for instance, in IVF treatment – and medical researchers often obtain their stem cells from surplus IVF embryos. If it is acceptable to destroy embryos in creating life, why not in saving life too?
There are no reasons to regard embryonic stem cell research as unethical. There is, however, something morally repugnant about the campaign against such research. By obstructing stem cell research, opponents may be slowing down the development of new medical treatments that could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, and lessen the suffering of many more.
Embryonic stem cells offer hope for new therapies, but their use in research has been hotly debated. Different countries have chosen to regulate embryonic stem cell research in very different ways. Mention embryonic stem cells in the pub and the topic still divides opinion. But what exactly are the ethical arguments and why are they so tricky to resolve?
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If the court judgment is difficult to fathom, is even more so. So hostile has the organization become to ‘big science’ that it is happy to line up with some of the most reactionary and obnoxious groups in Europe and jeopardize vital medical research. Organizations such as Greenpeace like to present the debate about embryonic stem cell research (just as they like to do the debate about GM crops) as one between immoral scientists, hellbent on progress at any cost, and those who seek to place scientific advancement within a moral framework. But what is moral about causing unnecessary suffering by creating obstacles to medical advance? And what can be more ethical than attempting to alleviate such suffering through the development of medical techniques? It is about time we stopped indulging theologians and Luddites in the absurd myth that they occupy the moral high ground. They don’t. They are using moral norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the practical alleviation of human suffering. Theirs is the morality of the closed mind and the entombed heart.
Research with embryonic stem cells (ESCs) is highly debated and many people have strong opinions about it. Both sides of the debate are interested in protecting human life, so why are views so different? It comes down to how the human blastula is viewed.
What is particularly ironic is that while the court has banned the patenting of techniques derived from destroyed embryos, it has not banned the destruction of embryos themselves, which remains legal. If it is immoral, and illegal, to patent processes that derive from stem cell research, why is the research itself not immoral and illegal? Or, to put it another way, if the research is moral, and legal, why should the patenting of it not be so too? In fact just this point was raised by judge Peter Meier Beck in an earlier hearing in a German court. ‘If something is legally allowed’, , ‘then it should not really be forbidden to patent it.’
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