Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Social Implications with the Increasing Innovation in Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

There is a tremendous amount of capability in the vast range of work currently being done with respect to embryonic stem cell research. Some of these breakthroughs include the recent successes reports in iPS cells by a group in Wisconsin to the latest cow-human hybrids created by the UK from generating stem cells from e-nucleated cow embryos and inserting DNA from human somatic cells. I am pleased and excited with the current work being conducted and I support its scientific progress. However, I think it’s essential to discuss the possible social implications that may result from these innovations. In the book “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors”, Susan Sontag reveals the matrix of metaphorical significance linking cancer and tuberculosis with the conditions of modern life. She describes how the uses of metaphors in society have shaped our notions of the disease and illness itself. This tragic misrepresentation of disease as described by metaphors has, according to Sontag; led us to hold our current stereotypical views on disease and illness. More importantly, it has shaped our views of people that may be affected by the disease. Any disease that is treated as a mystery and feared enough will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious. Thus, a surprisingly large number of cancer patients find themselves being shunned by relatives and friends. They become objects of practices of ‘decontamination’ by members of their household, as if cancer, like tuberculosis (TB), were an infectious disease. According to Sontag, as long as a particular disease is treated as a source of evil that has deep implications in all life aspects and not just as a medical condition, most people will indeed be demoralized by learning what disease they have. To fully understand the social factors at play, its important to note that the progression of the disease and the treatment itself play a significant role in not only the patient’s self-perception but also how they are perceived in the eyes of their society. The solution is to correct the conceptions we hold now with respect to disease and illness and begin to de mystify them.

Social scientists have shown that in all societies, there is a correspondence between the biological and the social order. Everywhere, and throughout all periods, it is the individual who is sick, but they are sick in the eyes of their society in relation to, and in keeping with the manners fixed by it. The language surrounding the disease and the sick individual thus takes shape within the language expressing the relations between the individual and society. Over the last twenty years, we have seen an extraordinary growth of the medical establishment and an equally remarkable crisis of confidence with respect to it. These developments have had an impact on the sick, their self-image, and their behavior. The transformation of the very nature of the diseases over time, the development of medicine and the sudden linking of illness and work in the legal framework brought about by industrialization are all examples of the constant restructuring of illness and the sick, showing us that each society has its own way of letting the sick exist, defining them, and taking charge of them.

Embryonic stem cell development exhibits a tremendous amount of promise with respect to treating many illnesses and diseases, some of which offer no cures currently. However, I can also see how these innovations may bring negative implications on our society, particularly individuals who are currently inflicted by a certain disease. As someone already pointed out, there have been recent developments which have demonstrated how stem cells have contributed to the cure of deafness. However, how might this new development influence others who do not wish to seek treatment and may not consider their condition to be a disability? Furthermore, how will this affect individuals with these condition who desire the treatment but simply do not possess the means to obtain the procedure? How might this change the way our society views the diseased and people with disabilities and the conditions associated with individuals who exhibit them. Will people inflicted become more readily discriminated against and how might it influence the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 if embryonic stem cell provides treatment for existing diseases. Bush’s approval of funding for limited embryonic stem-cell research with his concurrent praise of the American’s with Disabilities Act took many people by surprise. His consent to allow federal funding to take action towards curing and possibly even eliminating disabilities from society seems to many as completely countering the progress the ADA which has taken over eleven years to establish. With some even claiming this to be eugenics, they fear this may be jeopardizing the livelihood of the advancement and progressive reform that has been made from laws protecting those with disabilities.

In addition, it's important to consider how these innovations may also influence the non diseased or disabled. Nearly 46 million Americans, or roughly 18% of the population under the age of 65 were without health insurance between they years of 2007 and 2008 and that number is predicted to increase. Is it possible that this promising innovation may actually make it more difficult for average citizens to obtain health coverage?

An interesting quote I stumbled upon:

When scientists talk about curing the usual swathe of conditions, including spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, they often take a warped view of living life with a disability. Not only may they describe such conditions as an intolerable burden for society but some are as arrogant as to foreshadow that "we may be able to produce a whole generation of people who have a pretty good quality of life right up until they die (Professor Rathen, "Laws hamper stem cell research", The Australian, September 2, 2005)


  1. very interesting.

  2. That was a great article, I enjoyed reading it, and learned a lot. I especially liked the thought provoking quote at the end which hammered the point home. I never thought about the social implications that embryonic stem cell research could lead to.

  3. I thought it was very interesting to read about former President Bush's opinion/endorsement regarding Embryonic Stem Cells in conjunction with the Disabilities Act. I had not known about this relationship before.

    This article also brought up new perspectives for me. Personally, I am all for the responsible, culturally respectful, use of Embryonic Stem Cells. This article makes it even more apparent that before real research can be done, a solid, mutually agreed upon code of ethics needs to be implemented in the scientific communities where such research is to be done.


  4. A very interesting article. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the Sontag part a bit, but I would like to say that I both agree and disagree with her interpretation depending on the condition we are speaking of.

    In the area of "disabilities" I agree whole heatedly that there is an important social ramification that we need to consider as we move forward. There is a great deal of semi-fictional literature that deals with this very topic. (The blind and the deaf being able to suddenly see, hear, etc.) The overarching message being that gaining this new perception might not be such a grand thing at all. In fact it could be terrifying and actually counterproductive in the search for happiness.

    In Sontag's argument for cancer patients, I have to question the validity of her statement. I am sure that perception of the disease is a concern to some degree, but in my experience with cancer patients this concern is infinitesimally overshadowed by the issue of life and death, and has not caused those close to the patient to "shun them" as Sontag suggests.