Ethics of Stem Cell Research
The ethical implications of stem cell research (particularly with regard to embryonic stem cell research) are becoming an increasingly popular – not to mention a hotly contested – topic of debate. Medical experts, religious leaders, and politicians alike all share strong opinions on the matter. But before you take a side, get the facts on why stem cells are causing such a stir and how umbilical cord blood may be the answer to avoiding these moral dilemmas.
History of Stem Cell Research
Interest in embryonic stem cells has exploded in the last decade as medical advancements have forced the public to question the moral viability of this controversial research. However, the origins of stem cell research dates back much farther than that. In fact, it was in the mid 1800s that scientists first began to view cells as the foundation for human life.
Although it was not until the turn of the 20th century that scientists in Europe first discovered that stem cells were in fact the source of all blood cells. Bone marrow transplants – which are actually stem cell transplants – were soon developed and are now routine procedures in the treatment of a variety of diseases.
However, it was not until 1998 that the prospect of being able to use stem cells to regenerate damaged organs became possible, when James Thompson at the University of Wisconsin, and John Gearhart from John Hopkins University grew the first human embryonic stem cells. It was then that the first seeds of controversy on this topic were planted.
Controversy in Stem Cell Research
Although debates around stem cell research come from varying perspectives, emphasizing differing points of contention, it seems that the controversy surrounding stem cell research comes at the intersection of two primary opposing viewpoints: the high esteem for human life and the right to it, on the one hand; and the desire to alleviate human suffering on the other. And while these two ideas are not in themselves contradictory, in this particular case it is impossible to satisfy one without violating the other.
Is it justifiable to end one human life for the sake of preventing the death of another? There is no obvious answer to this very complex question. And while embryonic stem cell research is consistently pushing the limits of possibility for disease prevention and treatment, it is no less problematic in its moral assumptions.
What About Cord Blood?
The advantages of stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood are becoming increasingly well documented. They include:
- Collecting stem cells from a baby’s umbilical cord presents no serious risk to either mom or baby as it is collected after birth, making them a non-controversial source of stem cells
- Because cord blood stem cells are coming from the purest possible source, they are less likely to be rejected; the risk of infection is also significantly less
- The potential for graft vs. host disease is radically reduced
- Cord blood stem cells occur in higher concentration than bone marrow stem cells, therefore less need to be used for transplants than bone marrow stem cells and retain their vitality longer, as preservation techniques prevent them from aging