The moral status of embryonic stem cell research in the South African context

Nortje, Nico (2007-12)

Thesis (DPhil (Philosophy))--University of Stellenbosch, 2007.


Should surplus embryos which are destined to be discarded be protected at all cost, to the extent that they cannot contribute to medical knowledge - knowledge which could benefit society at large? Are embryos people or merely items of property? Different moral theories address these questions in different ways. Deontologists argue that the end never justifies the means and that the right not to be killed is more fundamental than the obligation to save. Utilitarians, on the other hand, argue that certain criteria should be met before moral significance can be contributed to an entity. The question of the moral status of the embryo is, as my discussion will show, one of the most widely discussed issues in the history of bioethics. Extensive literature exists on the topic. This study holds that an Ethics of Responsibility (ER) should by applied when answering the questions posed above as it encourages one to accept responsibility for the choices or decisions made and to defend them accordingly. I have endeavoured to answer the question of the personhood and rights of the embryo within the framework of the Ethics of Responsibility. Although these concepts overlap in many ways they remain central to the debate surrounding the sanctioning or prevention of the use of human embryonic stem cells in research. After identifying the micro-issues surrounding the human embryonic stem cell debate and explaining why both the deontologist and utilitarians fail to provide any adequate answers in this respect, I turn my attention to macro-issues such as safety concerns surrounding the usages and storage of stem cells. Commercialization, power issues, accessibility and the allocation of limited resources are also examined. Living in a society such as South Africa one cannot be blind to the inequalities of our health system. On a macro level I cannot but conclude that stem cell research does not seem to be a viable exercise within the South African context. South Africa faces a health care crisis far greater than the benefits stem cell research currently has to offer. However, the need still exists for a policy to guide future lawmakers who might need to address stem cell research and to guide decisions and actions. This brings me to my final chapter, namely proposing a morally justified policy for South Africa. I propose a policy which respects and values the autonomy of the progenitors’ choices (provided they have not been coerced) and which focuses on the beneficence of the greater society. Furthermore, it is paramount that the goal of any stem cell research should be for therapeutic use ONLY. Before commencing with the extraction of the stem cells, scientists should be obligated first to present convincing evidence that they have tried alternative ways to reach the same result. Once this has been proven, a regulatory body could issue the scientist/team with a license to undertake the specific research with a specific therapy as goal in order to prevent abuse. If they are found guilty of any unethical conduct their licenses should be revoked and an investigation launched.

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