What is the status of the embryo?   This question dominates most discussions of human embryonic stem cell research.  A 2010 study (Bahudar, G., Morrison, M., & Machin, L.) found that attitudes towards donations vary according to: 1) the type of tissue being donated or collected, 2) the purpose for which the donation is being sought, and 3) the nature of the recipient of the donation.

The acceptability of donation and willingness to donate has a close association with the extent to which particular components are viewed as being ‘valuable or waste’ (871).  High rate of participation was found in an epidemiological project collecting placentas and umbilical cords from pregnant women.  Many of the women believed they were only giving away waste material because the placenta was perceived as having no redeeming value beyond birth.

Similarly, tissues and bodily fluids that regenerate (blood, spermatozoa, and bone marrow) are regarded as having lesser value by donors and the donations are regarded as life-saving.  Another distinction made is that of organ transplants.  These are regarded as life-maintaining.  The donation of embryos or gametes is seen very differently from solid organs, blood or bone marrow.  Embryos are seen as containing life; more troubling to donate because they are often looked at in terms of personhood as being “a baby” or “a life”.

The values and attitudes of potential donors also change depending on the context and purpose of the donation.  When being donated for implantation, the embryo was called “baby”, but when being donated to stem cell research, it was called “bunch of cells”.  Embryos are evaluated as either being good or bad.  The poor quality embryos, which are unsuitable for implantation, are deemed acceptable/available for research.  This distinction is shared by both donors and medical personnel involved in the process.

This indicates that how material becomes available for donation plays a great role in the attitudes of potential donors.  A great example is women who lost their babies through miscarriage or opted to terminate the pregnancy because of fetal abnormalities thought it inappropriate to donate the fetus. On the other hand, women who deemed the pregnancy “unwanted” were more likely to consider donation to research.

And in yet another distinction, cord blood donors viewed donation for transplant more favorably than research.  This sentiment was most prevalent in fields such as cancer research and improving treatments for infertility.  When it came to cloning research and research involving animals, donations were greatly disapproved.

Stem cell research is not without ethical implications.  The key debate centers on the destruction of embryos (Zacharias, B.A., and et. al.  634).  It is informed by the concepts of nonmalficence (avoiding harm), beneficence (protecting and defending the rights of others, preventing harm, removing existing harm, and promoting good), justice (fair opportunity, entitlement, and distribution of resources), and human dignity (moral status and the ethical definition of personhood).  The idea of maleficence takes into account the moral nature act.  It poses the questions, what is the agent’s intention? It also considers the means of the act and weighs out the good and bad effects.

Bioengineered stem cells appear to be a viable alternative.  The stem cells are derived using techniques that seek to achieve the pluripotency in non-stem cells.  The technique has two categories:  somatic cell nuclear transfer and pluripotency induced by mediated nuclear programming aka cloning.  Bioengineered pluripotent stem cells do not require the destruction of viable embryos.  However, this too raises ethical concerns.  Is producing “disabled embryos” incapable of implantation really any better?

REFERENCES

Bahadur, A., Morrison, M., & Machin, L.  (2010). Beyond the ‘embryo question’: human embryonic stem cell ethics in the context of biomaterial donation in the UK.  Reproductive BioMedicine, 21, 868-874.

Zacharias, D.G., Nelson, T.J., Mueller, P.S., & Hook, C.H.  (2011). The science and ethics of induced pluripotency: What will become of embryonic stem cells?  Mayo Clinic Proc., 86(7), 634-640.

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