Stem cell research and its potential translation to regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and cell and gene therapy, have led to controversy and debates similar to the calls nearly 25 years ago for a ban involving recombinant DNA. Global legislative efforts in this field have been characterised by many legal, ethical and practical challenges, stemming from conflicting views regarding human embryonic research and cloning. National policy and regulatory developments have primarily been shaped by different understandings of relevant scientific objectives, as well as those relating to the moral and legal status of the human embryo, which have been used to justify or limit a range of permissible activities. Legal obscurity in this field, a consequence of inconsistent or vague legislative responses at a national and international level, leads to negative results, which include, among others, ethical violations; lack of collaboration and co-operation among researchers across national borders; stunted scientific progress; lack of public trust in stem cell research; proliferation of untested ‘stem cell therapies’; and safety issues. The purpose of this article is to explore the legal regulation of stem cell research and therapy globally, by comparing the permissibility of specific stem cell research activities in 35 selected jurisdictions, followed by a comparison of the regulatory approaches with regard to stem cell-based products in the European Union and the USA. A clearer understanding of the global regulatory framework will assist in formulating more effective legal responses at a national level and in navigating the uncertainties and risks associated with this complex and evolving scientific field.