Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Its Relation to the Destruction of Foetus
Embryonic stem cell research is a cause of great contention globally, and the regulation and stigma around such research is and will continue to be a heated topic. In the governance of every country, the murder of another human being is a crime punishable by law, and the removal of embryonic stem cells is the act of causing such stem cells for not developing into a human being. Where is the line is drawn in the sand, at what point is the destruction of an embryo for science murder and when is it not? At what point of conception does a fetus being a human being in the eyes of the law and is granted protection as such.
Common law jurisdictions such as South Africa provide a fiction regarding which the law can grant unborn fetus protection; this is the nasciturus fiction which was derived from the Roman law. Regarding this legal principle whenever there is a situation which would have been to the advantage of the fetus if she/he was already born, all rights that are conferred on persons that are already born alive, are also consulted on the embryo. The fetus then becomes a legal persona and carries legal capacity from the date of conception.
Embryonic stem cell research in China
In the past, China was without a comprehensive regulatory framework to govern embryonic stem cell research. It has led to a large number of unproven treatments derived from embryonic stem cell research used on the open market. It has created an environment which was not only detrimental to those patients participating in such unproven treatments but also cast doubt on the research of those scientists who were breaking new ground in the stem cell research field.
In 2003, the People's Republic of China's Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Health released official ethical guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research. The guidelines formally forbid any research targeted at human reproductive cloning and necessitate that the embryos that are utilized for stem cell research come only from:
- Spared gamete or blastocyst after in-vitro fertilization procedures;
- Fetal cells from accidental, spontaneous or voluntary selected abortions;
- A blastocyst or parthenogenetic split blastocysts obtained by somatic nuclear transfer technology; or
- Germ cells voluntarily donated.
In January 2012, the Chinese government implemented a ban on unapproved stem-cell therapies and a temporary moratorium on new clinical trials. With this ban, the government promised to establish a much-needed regulatory framework for future research.
However, regardless of the regulations put in place by the government, rogue research facilities continued to operate. The only impact that was evident was a restraint on stem-cell scientists with valid research agendas.
In 2015, the Chinese government brought into effect more stringent regulations on embryonic stem cell research, which they believed would curb the use of unproven treatments. These regulations include:
- 'obtaining patients’ informed consent;
- Using clinical-grade stem cells that have been authorized by an independent body;
- Stem cell clinical studies will only be carried out at authorized hospitals; and
- No costs will be involved for recipients of stem cell research-based treatment.”
Presently, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology’s aim for China is to become one of the leading countries in the field of embryonic stem cell research. The nation is supplying institutes conducting such research with funds from multiple sources.
Guidelines on Chinese Embryo Stem Cell Research
The director of the Chinese Society of Medical Ethics, Professor Benfu Li laid down the following principles to be abided by when conducting embryonic stem cell research in China:
- The Principle of Respect – an embryo must be considered as human biological life and as such demands a specific value – this requires that a fetus cannot be damaged or controlled without enough reason. The medical potential of human embryonic stem cell research is so vast that such research should undoubtedly be permitted and supported.
- The Principle of Informed Consent – donors, must be informed of all aspects of the research before such a donation. They must consent to all procedures to be undertaken during the investigation, and such consent must be kept a secret.
- The Principle of Safety and Utility – this principle determines that before any research may be conducted with human embryonic stem cells, it must have been tested on animals to avoid bringing damage to patients and donors alike. The study will not be used in clinical medicine until it has been proved that experiments on animals are safe and useful.
- The Principle of Non-commercialisation – this principle prohibits the buying and selling of gametes, embryos and fetal tissue. If such buying and selling were not banned, it could lead to the exploitation of donors.
As was discussed above, the ethical concerns regarding embryonic stem cell research spark much debate around the world. The use and destruction of the embryo for research purposes is a controversial part of the research process. However, in China, this is not the case. In fact, most Chinese citizens view the embryo as not containing any inherent moral value.
The Chinese citizens have followed a Confucian way of life for two millennia. According to a Confucian view, "a person being with birth; a person is an entity that has a body or shape and psyche, and has a rational, emotional and social-relational capacity for a lifetime of learning and innovation."
This way of thinking, therefore, results in the Chinese population viewing a human embryo as not having the characteristics of a human being and thus cannot be equated morally to a person requiring the protection of the law.
Regulation in the UAE
In the majority of the countries in the Middle East, there is no regulation for stem cell research and the scientists, and research institutes mostly rely on religious decrees. The UAE does not have any national legal framework or rules governing Embryonic Stem Cell research. However, as per the Sharia law, an individual will be required to pay 10% of the blood money even for accidentally killing a fetus. This principle of Sharia law was applied by The Dubai Traffic Court of First Instance where it fined a Lebanese woman for accidentally killing a nine-month embryo in a traffic accident. In another incident, a man was convicted for killing his wife who was two months pregnant and unborn child. The Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance’s judgment was also upheld by the Appellate Court too upheld the decision. Moreover, in 2012, the Dubai Health Authority ordered a stem-cell company to stop operations after it discovered to be promoting a treatment which is linked with the death of two children.
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