The possibilities are endless it seems. Today's scientific knowledge and technology is ever advancing and increasing. Science and technology has become a bigger part of our everyday lives today than most people might realize. With magazines like "Popular Science" or "Scientific American" being published every month packed full of the latest cutting edge technology and scientific discoveries, it's easy to see that the realm of science and technology is a major factor in the modern world we live in.
However, the field of science today has morphed to some degree from what it was like say, three hundred years ago when Isaac Newton explained the basics of motion. Today, science is less a means by which we gain an understanding and appreciation of the world around us, as it is an application of that knowledge to utilize and employ the world around us for our benefit. These applications, we call technology. Science has made the impossible possible, and technology has allowed things to be done that no one had ever dreamed could be done.
It's about pushing the limits. That leads us to ask the obvious question, when should the limits no longer be pushed? Simply because we can do something, does that mean we should? By asking these questions, a whole other domain is opened up called ethics. A discussion of ethics and ethical behavior will often quickly find its way to a discussion about the relationship between religion and ethics. Science, ethics, and religion are an interesting combination but an important and relevant one today. Biotechnology, the fusion of biology and technology, is a field that often falls under criticism from ethical and religious points of view. Most notably, debates of the ethical or unethical nature of abortion, cloning, and stem cell research have arisen.
In order to form a knowledgeable and well-informed conclusion about the ethics of modern biotechnology, it is necessary to study the extent of interplay between these three factors in today's modern biotechnology and what their relationship has been historically. First of all, a clear definition of the three terms at hand may shed some helpful light and provide a solid foundation. By definition, ethics is an attempt at creating a system of morals that define our perception of right and wrong. Ethics becomes critically important when dealing with behaviour that affects other people. Because biotechnology is one of the most debated, criticized, and controversial scientific fields today, ethics will inevitably play a very important role in shaping the applications of biotechnology and the direction that it's headed. Secondly, religion is defined as a way of life structured on a system of beliefs often held about a 'supernatural power' which one devotes themselves to by faith and often includes ritualistic practices and conducts such as prayer and fasting.
It sometimes refers to moral claims about reality and can result in a series of religious laws. Lastly, science refers to the effort of furthering human understanding of this world and the laws that govern it so as to produce useful models of reality by which we can conceive of the nature of the world we live in. It is a systematic way of attaining knowledge of the truths and laws of the physical world through careful study, observation, and research. Biotechnology has emerged forcefully in recent years with such technologies as abortion, cloning, and genetic modification, abortion being the only one of these that has so far been successful.
All three of these technologies are tied to stem cell research. Of all the recent advancements in the field of biotechnology, scientists are most excited about stem cell research and its possibilities. Since research began in 1998 with the first extraction of human embryonic stem cells by Dr. James Alexander Thompson in his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, scientists have proposed many exciting possibilities as a result of stem cell research. Stem cells are a type of cell that can reproduce itself, as well as develop into other various kinds of cells. There are several different stages of stem cells, each with different reproductive capabilities.
Some stem cells are totipotent, meaning they have the potential to develop into a living organism. Other stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, are pluripotent and can develop into all different kinds of cells but are unable to give rise to all the supporting structures required for a living organism. Multipotent stem cells are only able to give rise to a minimal number of different cells. It is because of these limitations that scientists prefer to work with higher-potential stem cells like embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells for example, which are only multipotent. Human embryonic stem cells are isolated after five to seven days of growth, when they are in what's known as the blastocyst stage, and are then nurtured further in a laboratory.
This procedure requires the destruction of the embryo as it is disassembled and the stem cells are extracted. Stems cells are preserved in stem cell lines. Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines are created by causing the embryonic stem cells to replicate themselves over and over again, each bearing the identical DNA footprint of the original stem cell. A major technology that is involved in stem cell research is Somatic Cell Nuclear Transplant (SCNT). The nucleus of any somatic cell, which has all forty-six chromosomes present, is transplanted into an egg cell, replacing its nucleus. This will develop into an embryo with a identical DNA make-up to the somatic cell donor, a process technically classified as cloning.
This allows scientists to study certain diseases by creating a line of stem cells from someone who has the disease. Their line of stem cells can be carefully studied to observe the development of the disease, the nature of cell reproduction when the disease is present, as well as experimental candidate drugs that will prevent or cure the disease. Needless to say, this may prove to be immensely useful in pharmaceutical research. Another possible application of stem cell research is reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Reproductive cloning is simply the product of an SCNT placed in a uterus where it develops into the genetic copy of the somatic cell donor. The result is a live birth producing a clone of the cell donor.
This procedure has been performed with animals many times before but with a very low success rate, approximately one percent. Therapeutic cloning is the same idea, but the embryo is developed in a lab with the purpose of therapeutic treatments. Currently, the major problem with organ transplants is rejection. The immune system of the host may reject the transplanted organ as foreign material.
Therapeutic cloning, however, may provide a way forward in this regard. If Ms. Jones needs a transplant, a somatic cell from Ms. Jones could be used for SCNT. The resultant product would have the same genetics as Ms. Jones.
The cells derived and grown for transplant would be accepted by Ms. Jones' immune system as one of their own. One of the more recent developments in the race of stem cell research happened at Cornell University in the UK. For the first time ever, a research team was able to genetically modify a human embryo.
After it developed into about one hundred cells, a period of about 5 days, the scientists destroyed it. As expected, this next step in stem cell research has caused a few concerns. David King of the Human Genetics Alert in the UK says as much. It will very soon be used to create 'enhanced designer babies'. This would turn children into objects, designed just like other consumer commodities, and would lead to a new eugenics in which the rich are able to give their children genetic advantages over others. This might seem like a small thing, but it is a large first step on the road that will likely lead to the nightmare world of designer babies and a new eugenics.
We may be entering the era of human genetic modification, which would be no less significant for humanity than the nuclear era. The possibility of 'enhanced designer babies' and the prospect of eliminating diseases before they can start may sound exciting at first. However, at the same time, this type of action reduces the value of a human life to a collection of trillions of cells that function together in harmony. For some people, this is all part of the pursuit of science.
For others, this would cross many lines and cause many heated debates. This brings up a second perspective - ethics. Of course the main issue with embryonic stem cell research is the source and means by which scientists obtain the stem cell, and that is by aborting a healthy developing human embryo. The only thing that separates that cluster of a few hundred cells from a clearly formed human being with a beating heart and a mind of its own is time, is a few short months. What is left to be factored in is the respect and value that a human embryo deserves.
It has every potential to become a human being with no clear event that separates its identity as a human from the embryonic stage to the time of birth. Others could argue that as an unconscious and unaware collection of cells, it really has no value as a human being at that point. "However, the mystical point in time that a human embryo develops into a human who cannot be sacrificed for science is unknown." Looking at the situation from a strictly scientific point of view, the embryo is without a doubt, fully human. Science can prove that a human embryo is alive just as easily as it can prove that a newborn baby is alive. That is, the genetic make-up says it is human, and the only thing that changes is its appearance. Even looking beyond the initial dilemma of how to secure useful stem cells without destroying a life, there still remains concerns about the ethics of 'designer babies'.
A designer baby is exactly what it sounds like, a fully customized, hand-picked baby. This doesn't come much short of baby manufacturing. It would be impossible for a child to be who they are; they would be who their parents want them to be. How can a genetically modified child feel unconditionally loved by its parents knowing that they were modified to meet their ideals? It would be easy to see them as fake and manufactured human beings, which by that point, is a complete abandonment of ethical behaviour. Besides all of this, so far embryonic stem cell research is eons away from ever having any avenue of successful application. There are many difficulties involved.
For example, never yet have scientists been able to grow a dish of embryonic stem cells into one specific type of cell, such as heart cells. As well, developing stem cell lines is extremely inefficient. When Dr. James Thompson isolated the first human embryonic stem cells, he started with thirty-five embryos, destroyed them, and was only able to successfully start five stem cell lines. Several years ago at the Jones Institute in Virginia, they started with one hundred and ten embryos and only ended up with three lines.
Another disheartening statistic states that at least twenty percent of the time, animals that have been therapeutically cloned have developed tumours. Even Dr. Thompson himself describes it as an obvious ethical challenge. "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.
I thought long and hard about whether I would do it." Maybe what we need is a compromise. Shiny a Yama naka, a Japanese scientist, might have done just that. Recently he discovered that "normal human skin cells can be genetically reprogrammed into the equivalent of stem cells." The only other person to have done this is Dr. James Thompson himself, obviously deliberating over the ethics of "sacrificing for science" and attempting to end the fiery debate that he contributed to. However, until this technology is implemented, it is hard to justify destroying thousands upon thousand s of embryos, small developing human beings, simply for the sake of potentially treating diseased people successfully. Do we give life only to destroy it for the purpose of giving life? Does the act of destroying life compromise the whole equation? Do possible third party benefits warrant such actions? These are the questions that the discipline of ethics raises.
Thirdly and finally, keeping in mind that the real issue is the point at which an embryo takes on human identity and value, is the perspective of religious beliefs and values. Most people of the Christian faith believe that life begins at conception. Therefore, it is simple to see where they would fall in the stem cell research debate. In believing that life starts at conception, then destroying man-made embryos and 'left over' IVF embryos, as well as aborted fetuses, would all be viewed as acts of murder.
Because religions often call its followers to stand up for what they perceive to be right, many anti-abortion and anti-stem cell research activists would probably have some sort of Christian background. People of the Muslim faith, for example, are more divided on the issue. Some Muslim scholars say that life begins at conceptions while other claim it begins after the 'angel's visit' which is after one hundred and twenty days. However, most North American Muslims hold to popular beliefs about IVF and stem cell research and embrace it. "Most Muslims in the United States strongly support [in vitro fertilization], which they regard as a compassionate way to help infertile couples produce a child.
Many Muslims also support stem-cell research, which allows testing on unused embryos from IVF." Probably not many practicing Muslims will be publicly averted to the increasing biotechnology possibilities. Conflict between scientific discovery and ethical values is by no means a new issue. For example, four hundred years ago Galileo was seen as an enemy of the Roman Catholic Church for suggesting with evidence that all planetary beings in our solar system revolve around the Sun and not the Earth. Darwin's Origin of Species was viewed as highly subversive when it was published as it contradicted many Biblical beliefs of the time. And now today, many recent biotechnology discoveries have been criticised heavily from many religious as well as ethical groups. It may seem that the relationship between scientific discovery and religion has and will continue to be perpetually negative.
John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White of the late 1870 s were of this mind when they developed the Conflict thesis. Their thesis basically states that there is a natural conflict between science and religion which has resulted in scientific progress being continually suppressed by traditions of faith and religious dogma. However, most scholars today dismiss the theory as an oversimplified view of a complex relationship. The relationship between science and religion has been classified into four possible interactions; conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. The conflict perspective as mentioned earlier, sets the two as opposites and entrenched against each other. The independence perspective views them as two completely separate entities, dealing with different aspects of the human existence altogether.
As perceived from the dialogue perspective, both science and religion have the potential to point to one another and compliment each other. The integration perspective proposes a merger of the two into one unified entity. However, no one has agreed on any one way of describing the relationship. Which one is right, or is it a combination of all four? It is left to the individual to decide. To conclude, science, ethics, and religion really is an interesting combination, providing a well-balanced and comprehensive perspective on the issue of biotechnology today. Science has often sparked great progress for the human race and continues to do so.
The possibilities truly appear endless. However, when science gets mixed up with sensitive issues dealing with life and death and the value of a human life, another angle must be introduced, namely, ethics. Ethics has the potential to preserve humanity and maintain the integrity of a human being. Ethics questions the 'sacrifices for science' and contrasts them against the dignity which we have as human beings. It serves to protect that which can so easily be tainted, such as the value of a human being's existence.
However, not often does ethics stand alone before it becomes closely linked with religious morals and beliefs. Some religions hold very specific and concise beliefs about stem cell research, while others remain divided. In looking at the relationship between science and religion in the past, we can see that the two have often found themselves pitted against each other, with science looking away from the old to the new, and religion providing the prominent moral standard of the time. In light of all that has been presented, it would be difficult to support fully the progress of stem cell research without second guessing the ethical issues surrounding it. For all the millions and millions of dollars that have been spent on stem cell research, we still have very little progress to show for it.
Even if stem cell research can save lives in the future, the number of lives saved at this point simply does not warrant the loss of staggering numbers of human embryos, which should be viewed as lives lost. Do thousands of innocent developing human lives need to be sacrificed simply for the potential to do something scientifically great? How much are we willing to degrade the sacredness of human life, the integrity that upholds it, and values that define it? These are some questions that should have the potential to stop stem cell research in its tracks. How far are we going to go for the sake of saying we did? How much do we really gain by exploiting human clones for spare parts so we can live longer? The respect for human existence is at stake in this modern debate. An appreciation for human life should always remain much more important than an appreciation for how many ways science can manipulate it.