The issue of stem cell research is surrounded with controversy. Much has been written about the utility and potential risks of stem cell research. This paper describes the history of stem cell research legislation in the United States. The paper compares American and international stem cell research legislation. The most important stem cell research policies in different parts of the world are described. Future policy options and recommendations are provided.
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Keywords: stem cell research, legislation, policy.
Stem Cell Research Legislation
For many years, the word combination ‘human embryonic cells’ has been at the center of hot public debates. Just like human cloning, human embryonic cells research has become a buzzword in contemporary morality and ethics. Today, the anatomic and physiological importance of human embryonic cells can hardly be overstated; they develop in virtually every cell of the body and have the potential to mitigate challenging health conditions, reduce the risks of incurable diseases, and restore damaged organs and tissues. This is why researchers in the western world work hard to understand how stem cells can be obtained and used, in order to save people’s lives. Not embryonic cells but the ways in which they are derived present the biggest issue. More often than not, stem cells are obtained from embryos; at times, adult tissues can also become a good source of embryonic cells. The current state of stem cell research legislation in the U.S. varies in different states. The future holds a promise to improve the lives of patients, only if stem cell research is limited to use embryos and puts a ban on human cloning.
In the United States, the question of stem cell research has always been connected with the issues of abortion and human cloning. “Since 1973, when the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, the US government has refused to fund embryo research, including IVF, because Congress feared this would encourage women to have abortions” (Wertz, 2002, p.674). Twenty years before the discovery of stem cells, the use and abuse of human embryos had become the topic of hot political debates. In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive directive prohibiting the creation of human embryos for research purposes (Duffy, 2002). NIH was prohibited from directing any resources on stem cell research (Duffy, 2002). Since 1996, a Congressional ban would be placed on all stem cell research efforts (Duffy, 2002). Yet, all earlier assumptions about stem cells and stem cell research broke in 1998.
In 1998, scientists at the University of Wisconsin were finally able to isolate human embryonic cells (Duffy, 2002). The discovery became a turning point in the evolution of stem cell research legislation in America. Earlier Congressional bans were no longer applicable, since stem cells could not be defined as human embryos (Duffy, 2002). In 2001, President Bush made a promise to reconsider the stem cell research legislation in America. During 2001, a series of stem cell research propositions were introduced in Congress (Duffy, 2002). The goal of those propositions was to facilitate stem cell research for the benefit of the American society.
As of today, stem cell research legislation in America still varies in different states. At the federal level, any funding for the research conducted on embryonic stem cells created before 2001 or research involving cloning is prohibited (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2008). State laws regulate all aspects of stem cell research activities and can either encourage (for example, in Connecticut and Massachusetts) or forbid (for example, in South Dakota) stem cell research (NCSL, 2008). In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order with the goal of expanding stem cell research, but it was blocked by a federal district judge who found the order to be violating the federal ban on funding the destruction of embryos (Harris, 2010).
International stem cell research legislation is extremely diverse. In Europe, the United Kingdom has the most liberal stem cell research policies that allow creating and using human embryos in research (Walters, 2004). Belgium and Sweden are moving along the same path, to allow the creation of embryos through in vitro fertilization or nuclear transfer (Walters, 2004). Nations that prohibit any stem cell research activities in Europe include Austria, Italy, Ireland, Poland, and Norway (Walters, 2004). In Germany, scientists are allowed to import human embryos from other countries and use them in research (Walters, 2004). In the Middle East, Israel has always been at the forefront of international stem cell research: the country prohibits reproductive cloning but permits cloning for research purposes (Walters, 2004). Iranian scientists managed to create human embryonic stem cells in 2003, and the event was praised and celebrated by the Iranian government (Walters, 2004). In the Asian region, China remains the most liberal in terms of stem cell research, permitting its scientists to transfer human cells into animal eggs (Walters, 2004). India and Singapore are moving to permit the creation of human stem cells through in vitro fertilization or nuclear transfer (Walters, 2004). South Korean government invests considerable resources in the development of its human stem cell research policy (Walters, 2004). In North America, legal debates regarding the safety and utility of stem cell research continue to persist.
One of the key questions is what awaits scientists and the entire humanity in the future. There is no definite answer to this question. Stem cell research legislation can pursue six different paths, from complete prohibition of any stem cell research activities to total permission of research on both remaining embryos and embryos created specifically for research purposes (Walters, 2004). However, the ethical and moral considerations of stem cell research should not be ignored. The issue of using live or producing stem cells for research through in vitro fertilization or nuclear transfer should be closely considered. Stem cells exhibit an enormous health care potential, but they can save the lives of patients only when stem cell research is limited to use stem cells and leaves no space for reproductive human cloning.
In America, questions of stem cell research legislation have always been connected with the issues of abortion and in vitro fertilization. Today, when the health care potential of human embryonic cells is widely recognized, the issue of appropriate stem cell research regulation becomes even more urgent. Stem cell research in America can pursue six different paths, from complete prohibition to total permission of all stem cell research activities. However, in the interests of patients and the entire society, stem cell research should be limited to use stem cells and leave no space for reproductive cloning
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