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Is stem cell research morally permissible?

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Is stem cell
research morally
Michael Lacewing
Creating embryonic stem cells
• Embryonic stem cell lines are created by removing
an inner cell mass from a five- to seven-day-old
embryo, a procedure which kills the embryo.
• When properly nurtured, the cells are able to
replicate themselves, creating what is called a
stem cell line that provides continuing opportunities
for research. The undifferentiated cells have the
potential to become any type of cell - brain, heart,
liver, bone – so they are called �pluripotent’ cells.
• The embryos used are surplus ones created by IVF
• Research on stem cells is almost entirely on
embryonic stem cells. Recently, scientists have
managed to find other sources for stem cells.
The nature of the argument
• The presumption is that it is morally
right, and good, to help human
beings where we can
• But, we also think, not by any means
• So the question is: is there a good
reason not to help people in this
The argument from potential
• Embryos have a right to life because they
will become a person with a right to life if
allowed to develop
• But:
– Sperm and egg prior to conception have this
potential, if allowed to conjoin
– Does potential matter? A student, who has
the potential to become a teacher, is not put
in charge of lessons until trained as a teacher;
you can’t spend money you don’t have yet
– The embryos in stem cell research won’t
develop unless implanted - so it doesn’t have
the potential to develop on its own
The soul and the sanctity of life
• If people have souls, when does the soul
and body come together? Traditional
Catholic doctrine: at conception - so the
embryo is sacred, as all human life is,
straight away
• But:
– Two-thirds of embryos spontaneously aborted
– Some forms of contraception, including some
forms of the pill, do not prevent conception,
but prevent the embryo implanting in the
uterus wall
– Until 14 days old, the embryo may split into
two, becoming identical twins - one soul or
Sanctity and the right to life
• So are embryos sacred? Do they have a
right to life? Are these two questions the
• Why do human beings have a right to
life? Is it something that distinguishes us
from animals?
Emotional experience
Just �being human’
Dividing people up
• Apart from souls and �being human’, all
other criteria are possessed by some
human beings and not others, e.g. severe
mental disability, senile dementia,
permanent vegetative state
– Yet we don’t think it is permissible to kill them
for the benefit of others
• Sentience: primitive consciousness of
perception, pleasure, pain
– This begins around 20 weeks, so embryos
don’t have right to life.
– Many animals are sentient - do they have a
right to life?
• Alternatives for embryo: unless IVF
is prohibited, it will die anyway
• Alternatives to stem cell research:
does it matter if there is no other
way of producing these benefits?
– Not if it is wrong to use embryos - we
wouldn’t use adults in this way
Does the source of stem cells
• Stem cells can now be extracted
from amniotic fluid, and most
recently, from veins removed in
surgery; would it be permissible to
use these?
• �Induced pluripotent cells’ are cells
that have been reprogrammed to
become stem cells
• But should we stop research on
embryonic stem cells meanwhile?
The importance of the debate
• Even if the answer is that it is
morally permissible to use embryos
in stem cell research, it would be
wrong to do so lightly and without
due consideration
– Embryos are alive
– Embryos are human (of human
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