The debate over stem cell research, and whether or not it should be made legal, is very complicated and long-standing. Stem cell research involves investigating whether or not embryonic stem cells can be used to potentially cure a number of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and many others. The theory is that, since stem cells are able to differentiate into any other cell in the body, that they can be used to create healthy cells where once there were cancer cells, thus treating the disease. Stem cells have already been used to repair disease-ridden tissue successfully in patients (Neel & Silberner, 2011).
However, there are many who oppose the use of embryonic stem cells in research, particularly among the pro-life community. The use of stem cells from human embryos has stirred controversy because of its associations with abortion, still thought to be immoral by conservative elements of the debate. Because the human embryo has to be destroyed in order to harvest the stem cell, it is claimed to be akin to murder by those anti-abortion elements. In this paper, the history of litigation in the US regarding stem cell research will be examined and compared to the declarations made in other countries throughout the world. In light of the following findings, it will be recommended that stem cell research be legalized in the United States.
HISTORY OF US STEM CELL RESEARCH LITIGATION
The United States has had a long battle regarding stem cell research and its ethics, applications, and implications. A heated debate has arisen stating that federal funding should not be used to finance research that involves the destruction of embryos. Before beginning the discussion, it must be noted that there is no federal law in place to ban the research of stem cells, nor has there been; however, the restrictions typically deal with the ability to use federal money to fund this research. In 1995, Congress passed a law that stated that federal funds could not be used to finance any research that involved the creation or destruction of a human embryo, including stem cell research.
The year 2001 saw President George W. Bush limited the number of stem cell lines that were allowed for research to 60, after reviewing the guidelines set in place by the National Institutes of Health. This was followed by a letter in 2004 written by over two hundred Congressmen, in which they asked him to provide embryonic stem cell research with more funding than was currently allotted. This led to the 2005 decision by the House of Representatives to lessen the restrictions on federal funding of the research, which was vetoed by Bush despite the Senate passing the bill with a large majority (BBC News, 2009).
An attempt in 2006 to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was again vetoed by President Bush, in a move that cemented that administration’s displeasure with stem cell research. However, with his successor Barack Obama, a shift in attitudes occurred, wherein many of the restrictions placed upon federal funding for stem cell research, allowing the federal government to fund more stem cell lines beyond the 60 that were permitted at the time.
After the inauguration of Barack Obama, the FDA permitted the study of embryonic stem cell therapy for the first time, a brave decision given the limit on federal funding for the research since 2001. This came as part of a gradual change that occurred during Obama’s administration, with attitudes taking a more scientific and pragmatic approach to the topic of stem cell research. “As of 2008, it is clear that public attitude towards funding for embryonic stem cell research has undergone a dramatic change since 1995” (Shyntum and Kalkreuter, p. 3).
An attempted lawsuit to end financing of embryonic stem cell research ended up getting thrown out in 2011 (AP, 2011). The current governmental attitude regarding stem cell research appears to be lightening, and getting more lenient, on the way to providing extended federal funding and support.
COMPARABLE STATUES IN REST OF WORLD
The rest of the world has extremely diverse opinions and legislations regarding stem cell research. South Africa was the first nation to start a stem cell bank in 2004, having authorized cloning of embryos in order to harvest stem cells the previous year.
In Asia, the use of stem cell research is fairly common and is more than accepted there, with virtually every major country in the continent permitting its use. China permits the use of stem cell therapy in clinical trials, and will allow for embryonic creation for stem cell research. India has an extensive stem cell bank, and has created a huge industry in the practice of storing stem cells of patients for the purpose of medical treatments. Japan has permitted stem cell research, and South Korea is also allowed to do so. Singapore has the market cornered on stem cell research, with more than 40 stem cell research groups available; it provides incentives for top scientists to participate in the research there (Ralston, 2008).
In Europe, however, there is a bit more of a conservative bend regarding the subject of stem cell research. France, Germany, and Italy are all strong opponents of stem cell research, though France recently opened a window permitting the research in order to determine its viability. However, many more European countries, including Belgium, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, permit stem cell research, and Sweden has a stem cell bank. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are big players in stem cell research, showcasing large support for the practice in the Middle East (Ralston, 2008).
Even in North America, Canada and Mexico are more liberal regarding stem cell research. While Canada prohibits creating human embryos, they do allow research for embryos that have been discarded. In Mexico, there is a booming stem cell business, wherein they already use these stem cells on foreigners who seek treatment for their disease, though regulation is sorely missing from that industry (Ralston, 2008). Given the vast number of countries in the civilized world who already allow stem cell research, it is rather surprising that the United States exists as one of the few holdouts.
FUTURE DIRECTION OF US LITIGATION
The discovery in 2008 of a method of stem cell extraction that does not destroy the embryo brings a whole new dimension to the stem cell research debate. Because it is now possible to perform the research without killing a child, the anti-abortion portion of the argument is no longer a valid one. Given the appeasement of the largest opponents to stem cell research (pro-life groups), it should be easier than ever to pass a law granting the federal funding of stem cell research. Also, the increased level of federal funding should make it substantially easier to provide financing for stem cell research projects, particularly given the high priority it must take in the medical and scientific communities.
In conclusion, given the attitude of the rest of the world, new methods to extract stem cells, and the innumerable diseases that could be treated through successful discovery of a method to treat them through stem cells, it makes absolute sense for Congress to repeal the 1995 law banning federal funding of stem cell research. Compared to the potential loss of a single embryo, the strong possibility of curing some of the most deadly and dangerous diseases known to man can increase the quality of life for billions of people around the world. Given that incredible chance, it only makes sense to utilize whatever means are at our disposal, particularly if new methods allow us to do it without even destroying an embryo.
BBC News. (2009, January 23). Green light for US stem cell work. BBC News. Retrieved August 14, 2011, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7847450.stm
Neel, J., & Silberner, J. (n.d.). Stem Cells Used In Woman’s Windpipe Transplant. NPR. Retrieved August 14, 2011, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97210169
AP. (2011, July 27). Stem Cell Lawsuit Thrown Out. The New York Times. Retrieved August 14, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/us/28brfs-STEMCELLLAWS_BRF.html
Ralston, M. (2008, July 17). Stem Cell Research Around the World. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved August 14, 2011, from http://pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Stem-Cell-Research-Around-the-World.aspx
Shyntum, Y., & Kalkreuter, E. (2010). Stem Cell Patents-Reexamination/Litigation – The Last Five Years. Pabst Patent Group, 2, 1-4.