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Rights and Wrongs

 

Scientists hope that human stem cells will open up totally new ways of treating otherwise incurable conditions such as Parkinson's disease, heart disease, Alzheimer's, paralysis, stroke and diabetes.

 

At the moment, the stem cells are taken from human embryos just a few days after fertilisation. At this stage the embryo measures about a quarter the size of a pin-head.

 

Using an embryo in this way creates huge ethical problems. Scientists hope that in the future they will be able to use stem cells taken from consenting adults.

 

Is it right to use an embryo as a stem cell 'factory'?
For some, an early embryo is just a ball of cells with no formed human characteristics, making medical research permissible. To others, research on any embryo is unacceptable because an embryo is as fully human in status as a baby or adult.

  • Is an embryo a human life or just a ball of cells?
  • Do the rights of the embryo outweigh the rights of the adult or child with an incurable disease?

     


When does an embryo or foetus become a human being?
For some people this would be at the moment of conception. For others the human status increases as the foetus grows in the womb. At what point do you think a foetus has the same rights as any other human?

 

 
  • At the moment of conception?
  • Two months after fertilisation when the head and body are recognisable, but the embryo has no awareness because the brain has not wired up?
  • At 5 1/2 months when the foetus can respond to noise and if born would survive?
  • Only when the baby is born?
 

 

Can you obtain embryos ethically?
There are 100 000's of 'spare' embryos stored in freezers around Europe. For some their fate is uncertain. In Germany, the law prevents the creation of 'spare' embryos by allowing only a few eggs to be fertilised at once, all of which are implanted into the mother.

  • Should this approach be taken throughout Europe?
  • What happens to the 'spare' embryos already in storage. Should they just be discarded, or should they be used to cure disease?

Other sources of stem cells?
Recent research suggests that the bone marrow of adults might be capable of producing stem cells to cure a variety of diseases.

 

  • Is it ethical to focus medical research on obtaining stem cells from adults, if in the meantime people die of diseases that embryonic stem cells could cure?
  • Should using embryos for stem cells be permitted if adult bone marrow can yield equally good stem cells?
 

 

Does your intention make a difference?
In freezers around Europe there are 1000's of eggs and billions of sperm left over from fertility treatments. One suggestion is to use these sperm to fertilise eggs, creating more embryos to provide stem cells?

  • Is it acceptable to create an embryo, with the single intention of using it for research before disposing of it?
  • How would you feel if your stored egg or sperm was mixed with a complete stranger's egg or sperm, creating a totally unique embryo purely for use in research?

Is human cloning a better option?
Taking an unfertilised egg and inserting your own DNA could produce an embryo which is a clone of you. If you had, for example diabetes or Alzheimer's disease, this embryo could be used to provide stem cells to cure you. Some people feel they should have the right to do exactly what they want with their own DNA even if it is cloning. Others feel this provides a 'slippery slope' to reproductive cloning.

  • Is using a cloned embryo better than using a 'spare' embryo that is a unique combination of genes?
  • If a cloned embryo was never intended to become a baby, does it have the same rights as an embryo created to implant into a woman's womb?
  • Do the benefits of this research outweigh the costs?

Whose rights are most important?
Ethicists often look at who benefits, and who is harmed by a procedure. In this case the individual embryo is not only harmed, but killed by the research. A person with an untreatable disease could be cured by the stem cells from that embryo.

 

 
  • Whose rights are most important? The dying adult or the 4-day old frozen embryo?
  • Do the benefits of stem cell research outweigh any harm that may be done?
 

 

A European consensus?
Achieving a consensus of what should and should not be allowed has proved very difficult across the member states of the European Union (EU). The EU is culturally and historically diverse and it is doubtful that one ethical framework could embrace the various opinions and beliefs found within its boundaries.

 

The advantage of such variety means that different countries will concentrate on different approaches - for example adult stem cells in one country and embryonic stem cells in others.

 

Without a consensus between member states, will people in need of stem cell therapy simply go to a neighbouring country if treatment is not available in their own?