Stem Cells. The ethical issues
by Dr Shaun Pattinson, Reader in Durham Law School, Durham University
Stem cell research offers the tantalising prospect of a cure for many otherwise devastating diseases, so why is it controversial? For some, the objections are little more than automatic "yuk" responses, similar to the cries of disgust prolific in the early days of blood transfusion, organ transplantation and in vitro fertilisation. Most objections are not to stem cell research but to embryonic stem cell research. Pro-life groups oppose such research because it requires the destruction of early human embryos, which they regard as tantamount to murder. Opponents multiply where the source of the stem cells is a cloned embryo or, even more controversially, a human-animal embryo created by putting human genetic material into the egg of an animal such as a rabbit or a cow.
The UK's leading position in stem cell research operates alongside strict but permissive regulation of the creation and use of human embryos outside of the body. The Government is in the process of revising this legislation and has proposed to continue to permit the derivation of stem cells from embryos and cloned embryos, under licence. It also proposes, however, to prohibit the creation of human-animal embryos, though the legislation might contain a power to permit such research under licence in the future. I will be among those critically probing the new legislation and questioning whether the distinctions drawn have a principled ethical rationale.