The other ethical problem with stem cells

I have written about this before, but that fact that it just keeps coming up seems to warrant another go. For years much of the ethical debate about stem cells has centered on the use of embryonic stem cells in research and focuses on the moral status of human embryos and the problem of destroying human embryos for research. That is still a significant moral issue, but there is another moral issue regarding the use of stem cells that has nothing to do with embryos. The issue is the use of totally unproven treatments outside of clinical research studies.

A recent article in The Scientist reminds us that this continues to be a major ethical issue. Italy’s outgoing health minister is reported to have given authorization for the use of patient derived stem cells under a compassionate use program to some terminally ill patients against the recommendation of the country’s health regulatory agency. This is being done even though there is no evidence that there is any benefit from the administering the stem cells produced by the organization involved and no studies have been published regarding the involved treatment. Why would the Italian government choose to pay for a treatment that there is no reason to believe is beneficial in a way that nothing will be learned by doing it?

I think it has to do with some things that have become a part of the way that people in our time think about illness and medical treatment. A great many things have been accomplished by medical science just in the time that I can remember, and even more in my parent’s lifetime. We can cure many diseases that were incurable in the past. There was a time when life was expected to be short and hard and death was very present to everyone. Many of the achievements of medical science are wonderful, but they have given rise to the expectation that we should be able to cure all diseases and that we somehow have a right to be cured. Instead of realizing that we are all mortal and we will all die, we begin to think that it is unfair when we are ill and unthinkable to have an incurable illness. That makes us vulnerable to someone selling unproven treatments that benefit only the seller even to the point that we pressure our governments to pay for this type of unproven treatment.

We need to remember that the common fate of all human beings is death, and all of medical science is unable to change that. Every person whose life is saved by a new amazing treatment still eventually dies. We should not be blind to the reality of death. The response to incurable illness needs to be compassionate care for the life that those who are dying have left, not the false hope of unproven cures that accomplish nothing.

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