How Far is Too Far: Is Stem Cell Research Playing God?

Introduction: Research Problem

Dolly the sheep was the first big breakthrough in stem cell research during the 1990s, but it remains a contentious subject today. From synthetic biology of gene cloning to gene editing and even embryonic research, the ethics mean weighing potential benefits against the costs. There is also a need to separate out individual from societal benefits.

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Unmistakably, the chance to potentially fix hereditary issues can be tempting. General morals and ethics allow public opinion to sway back and forth, questioning if stem cell researchand the associated improvements to quality of lifeare playing God with human lives. As such, most religions take issue with using stem cell therapy while individuals with medical ailments are for its use. This research seeks to outline a few pros and cons to set up informed decision making, but it does not seek to differentiate between ethics and morals, only to present their presence as an influencing variable.

Religion & Stem Cell Research

This still-unusual form of medical research is probably best described as novel interventions in the process of reproduction (Allum et. al., 2017). Degeling et. al. (2014) use the wording the creation of chimeric organisms from human and neural stem cells and primate embryos. Regardless of the phrasing or the application, debates get heated quickly as to whether or not this version of research holds value or validity. Religion classifies it under boundaries of acceptable interference in creation which suggests humans pirating responsibilities rightfully belonging to an all-powerful God (Allum et. al., 2017). And yet even religion allows for certain exceptions, differentiating between using it to actually heal a condition and using it for the purpose of more in depth research in the hopes that it will eventually provide answers or a human application (Degeling et. al., 2014).

A further distinction identifies when the cells belong specifically to either party (the recipient or the supplier). Religious morals appear to take issue when it cannot be determined to whom the cells belong, or if they belong to both parties equally. At what point does the animal become eerily quasi-human? This seems to be the central issue, morally speaking, to not confuse authentic humans with an animal-human hybrid who has enhanced or ‘human-like’ cognitive or psychological characteristics (Degeling et. al., 2014). Religion tends to be against, but can take either or both sides, depending on the denomination’s school of thought, choosing if and when this type of research crosses a line. In the pursuit of preventing science from going too far into God’s role, religious organizations have influenced legislative policy to monitor the use and application.

Assessing the Costs: Who pays?

Stem cells have ownership, and deciding who pays for treatment means deciding who owns them. They alter a building block which therapy defines as belong[ing] to culture not to nature (Grad et. al., 2012). This is key to several layers, including morals, because of the connection to the indefinable part of the human being: not biology but divine humanity as being created in God’s likeness (Grad et. al., 2012). If it belongs to biology, to medicine, medical insurance might have an obligation to cover certain treatments for (for example) cancer. This makes it a secular issue, not religious.

There is also a price based on defining who gets priority for this treatment. The breakdown occurs in assessing who will be harmeda diminution of progressand the more elevated level of seriousness related to the harm, the higher level of competence required for subjects for valid consent (Grad et. al., 2012). This means if the subject’s risk of harm is great, then the researcher has an obligation to pursue a subject who can give consent to the procedure. But, setting aside the question of who decides which patients receive the treatment, there is the other question of mandating treatment in the patient’s best interests. Does refusal to provide treatment equate with causing harm? And who would be liable: insurance companies, doctors, parents? Along with deciding who receives treatment, the consequences of denial of treatment need to be thoroughly assessed and if payment would be forced from insurance companies or parents of minor children, in the pursuit of improved health and wellbeing.

Benefits & Socioeconomic Status

The debate continues because there are enough documented benefits to justify pursuing more research (Degeling et. al., 2014; Gomley, 2018). Further, at-home treatments can reduce infections as well as lower patients’ medical costs, freeing up resources for others (Gomley, 2018). Science needs to come to a decision of if the morals of preserving a patient’s life outweigh the morals of potentially damaging that same life (Nisbet and Markowitz, 2014). And it could be argued that the existence of the debate itself constitutes a benefit to elevating society to having these discussions. This pushes research further, while inflaming hostilities between political parties (Degeling et. al., 2014). But without the debate, research would not have the platform to establish its merits in applying science to enhancing or prolonging a patient’s life.

Additionally, opinions on stem cell research could provide insight into privilege, as those who have the time, means, and education to make such intricate decisions are those who possess resources not available to poorer classes. However, upper classes act in what is termed limited information rationality from viewing political perspectives, while still tending to act cohesively as a cohort, in ideologically consistent ways (Nisbet and Markowitz, 2014). Thus, upper classes tend to have more access to information about stem cell research in order to make decisions about pursuing it for their own benefit. This could act to systematically exclude lower classes, causing an unequal benefit based on the patient’s place in society.

Conclusion

Stem cell research has cured diseases and advanced medical progress toward understanding effective treatments. However, religion influences public opinion and seeks to caution against the ends justifying the means. Regulation provides boundaries and oversight, and should adjust with time and knowledge. But efforts to make this treatment inclusive and accessible need addressing, to keep it from being exclusive to socioeconomic ability to pay. It is this researcher’s position that, because stem cell research likely is not going away, the approach should combine an awareness in using it with a deliberate, strategic end goal. And the debate needs to continue to include both perspectivesreligious and secularin order to fully evaluate all implications.

References

Allum, N., Allansdottir, A., Gaskell, G., Hampel, J., Jackson, J., Moldovan, A., Priest, S., Stares, S., and Stoneman, P. (2017). Religion and the public ethics of stem-cell research: attitudes in Europe, Canada and the United States. DOI https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176274.

Davey, S., Davey, N., Gu, Q., Xu, N., Vatsa, R., Devalaraja, S., Harris, P., Gannavaram, S., Dave, R., and Chakrabarty, A. (2015). Interfacing of science, medicine and law: the stem cell patent controversy in the United States and European Union. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology. Vol 3 (71). DOI: 10.3389/fcell.2015.00071.

Degeling, C., Irvine, R., and Kerridge, I. (2014). Faith-based perspectives on the use of chimeric organisms for medical research. DOI 10.1007/s11248-013-9770-z.

Frati, P., Scopetti, M., Santurro, A., Gatto, V., and Fineschi, V. (2017). Stem cell research and clinical translation: a roadmap about good clinical practice and patient care. Stem Cells International. Vol 2017. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/5080259.

Gormley, C. (2018). Home stem cell transplantation could lower infections, costs. HEM/ONC Today, 19(2). 32. Retrieved from https://login.proxy094.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1999559777?accountid=11741

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