Stem Cells - ethical debates and historical remarks
Ethical concerns about stem cell research are deeply rooted in the past. Understanding the historical content of these concerns may help to foster an open and informed dialogue.
Stem cell research aims at fulfilling the dream of regenerative medicine. Like some lizards are capable of regenerating their tail, physicians and researchers hope to be able one day to regenerate deteriorated or pathologically altered human tissue with the help of stem cells. High hopes are put into pluripotent embryonic stem cells possessing the capability of differentiating into the greatest variety of other cell types. To make them fit the individual to treat so called "therapeutic cloning" seems to be an appropriate method. The term describes the generation of autologous embryonic stem cells through somatic cell nuclear transfer.
Here some crucial ethical issues arise. The questions of "human therapeutic cloning" and research with "human embryonic stem cells" are of special importance. In these ethical debates not the high aim of regenerative medicine is under discussion but the means to achieve this aim. Each method of gaining human embryonic stem cells may have its own ethical implications. However, the basic ontological problem shared by them all is that embryos, from which stem cells derive, could theoretically develop into humans if transferred into a uterus. The embryo's potency results in ethical considerations both of using it for research and destroying it: critics are of the opinion that the embryo's potency forbids research with human embryonic stem cells.
Sometimes it seems as if our modern debates arose from modern techniques. In a-historic discussions normative issues are linked to the latest findings. New methods are interpreted as either potentially dangerous (in terms of undermining moral values) or as a way of sidestepping former moral problems. However, as far as regenerative medicine is concerned the dispute about its moral implications is as old as the associated experimental research.
Around 1900 moral orientations on a materialistic and mechanistic basis clashed with traditional, religious ethics when experiments on regeneration were under discussion. In 1899 the German-American physiologist Jacques Loeb (1859-1924) for example published experiments, during which he had been able to achieve embryonic development in sea urchins without having fertilised them with sperms. In several steps he had "just" altered the salt solution surrounding the sea urchin's eggs. Loeb called his technique by which he could induce development in eggs without sperm "Artificial Parthenogenesis". Noteworthy, as early as in his first paper on this subject Loeb had speculated about the possibility of repeating these experiments one day in mammals. Loeb's experiments and his epistemology aiming at the technical control of all life processes caused a vivid public response.
Jon Turney examined the reaction to Loeb's artificial parthenogenesis in the popular print media to systematically assess the public reaction to his findings. Turney found that the fears at the time were expressed in much the same way that the fears towards modern biological findings and methods are expressed today. A central issue was the idea that biologists were on the verge of "creating life" in the laboratory. In the awareness of the popular media Loeb's artificial parthenogenesis was closely connected with this new (and still growing) power of experimental biology. Furthermore, it was connected with this power's innate potential. This notion resulted in some critical comments which can be classified into two categories not always readily distinguishable. On the one hand Turney found "expressions of antimechanism, grounded in a spiritual or religious disquiet about the direction biological science was taking"; on the other hand he found comments in which fears become evident regarding how the results of such research might be used. Turney was able to differentiate two streams of thought: commentators were (1) worried that the new powers acquired by biological research might result in new moral problems and (2) critics feared that the new biology practised by Loeb might undermine traditional moral values.
This historical example may show in how far current debates are deeply rooted in the past. One can presume that only an awareness of the historical dimension of fundamental ethical differences in pluralistic societies will allow for an open and informed dialogue on issues such as stem cell research. Not just understanding a modern technique, but understanding the historical development of such a technique will help to comprehend its inherent ethical implications.
Turney J. Life in the laboratory: public responses to experimental biology. Public Underst Sci 1995;4:153–76.
Fangerau H. Can artificial parthenogenesis sidestep ethical pitfalls in
human therapeutic cloning? An historical perspective. J. Med. Ethics 2005;31;733-735 (Here you will find further literature)