The Moral Status of the Embryo and Conceptions of the Sacred

The moral status of the embryo has been the chief preoccupation of many ethicists, religious groups, citizens, and policy-makers in the debate over the moral permissibility of ES cell research. Arguments to the effect that research on embryos is wrong because it violates human dignity have gained currency but have virtually no value. Simply to utter the words as if, on their own, they constitute an argument is reasoning at its sloppiest. And, to use the concept of human dignity to place on the legislative agenda one's own private moral view, debases the whole idea of human dignity. Many mission statements issued by ethics committees contain "human dignity," yet for all of the "whereas" clauses, and definitions found in these documents, no one ever attempts to spell out what human dignity is, and how it might be offended by ES cell research. We should be suspect of anyone who cannot articulate any content for human dignity but who professes to know a violation of it. In addition, it is insufficient to state that human dignity is transgressed when the vital interests of a human are acted on in inhumane, and degrading ways. It must be established what these vital interests are, and who might possess such interests.

It is said that research involving embryos turns "nascent human life into a natural resource to be mined and exploited, eroding the sense of worth and dignity of the individual."15 Human conceptuses are human entities from the time of conception. This is indisputable (at least from a biological/genetic standpoint). However, it is controversial as to what follows from this fact. Some argue that because the entity is human, it merits the same legal protections that might be afforded an adult under threat of physical violation. Does the property of humanness, in and of itself, really matter morally? Let us reflect on the following example.16 There are two islands, a violent typhoon will imminently strike both, and there is only one rescue boat. On one of the islands there are 100 human blastocysts housed in a freezer, on the second island, there are 100 adult humans. Which island population should the captain be ordered to rescue? Surely the boat should be deployed to the second island. That the vast majority of people one might survey, would likely endorse this answer, suggests that even those who say that blastocysts have as much value as fully formed individuals who possess sentience, etc. may not in fact believe in what they say.

Mere humanness does not capture what troubles people about research involving embryos. Why would we prefer to save the adults? Is it because they are sentient, and therefore possess the capacity for suffering, and have awareness of their impending plight that (under no plausible understanding of early development) any human blastocyst has? One riposte is that although embryos are not sentient, they should be accorded full or weighty moral status on the grounds that they have the potential for sentience.

It is held by objectors to stem cell research that destroying embryos for the purposes of stem cell cultivation destroys a potential person. However, if the embryo is created specifically for the purpose of research, then does it make good sense to consider it a potential person? In what sense is x a potential y if the conditions required for the transition from x to y do not obtain? For blastocysts to become persons, the necessary conditions of environment and nurture must be satisfied. In the case of natural procreation, many embryos die owing to chromosomal abnormalities. We are told that a potential person becomes such at conception. But these embryos could never have become a person because they lacked the requisite genetic complement to survive. The point is that potentiality is necessarily a contingent concept. A blastocyst created by a stem cell researcher would always have been intended for research and/or clinical uses. Thus, from the outset, there was no possibility of the blastocyst becoming, e.g. Jane Doe, because there was never any intention of providing it with the correct environment (and so points to the conclusion that, contrary to popular wisdom, it is not better to use supernumerary embryos, because these were possible candidates for implantation, which embryos created for research never are). This begs the obvious question of whether creating life with the intention of destroying it, can be justified.

So much is made of intention, we ought to give it due consideration. One possible strategy is that intention need play no part at all in the defence of ES cell research involving SCNT. This is because SCNT, were it applied to humans for the purposes of reproduction, arguably creates no potential person. Why? Think of the reasons behind opposition to reproductive cloning. SCNT has a low efficiency rate, and is associated with severe abnormalities. The incidence of both has been traced to faulty gene imprinting. The imprinting problem is deemed to be so severe by some scientists, that they doubt that a human with a normal range of powers could emerge from the technique.17 Furthermore it has been suggested, on the basis of defects in gene imprinting, that SCNT in humans for reproductive purposes would likely require the creation of huge numbers (hundreds or even thousands) of embryos before a single cloning success might be achieved. Hence the experimentation on humans that would be required to establish SCNT as a viable procreative method, speaks against deploying it for that purpose. My own point is that since there is so much uncertainty surrounding the nature of the abnormalities that would present, it is reasonable to state that it is possible no person could ever emerge through SCNT. Hence SCNT in ES cell research involves no creation of life with the intention of destroying a potential person. The factual premise is that no person can be created by the technique, therefore there is no potential person whose integrity, dignity or other such is violated. It is, however, ill advised for a philosophical argument to rest on contingent facts about science. Within the realm of the possible is that imprinting difficulties may be overcome. A more robust rejoinder to the notion that it is wrong to create life with the intention of destroying it, must be sought. One is available — the argument from consistency in moral reasoning.

Any potentiality argument which incorporates the view that life begins at conception, were it followed to its logical conclusions, denies the moral permissibility of women using intrauterine devices for birth control, IVF (which involves embryo wastage), and abortion. Perversely, it also implies that natural procreation is morally problematic. We know that on average three out of four human conceptuses die before one survives to the fetal stage.18 When we make the choice to procreate in the light of knowledge about this attrition rate, are we not complicit in bringing about the death of early lives in order to produce one child? Critics will immediately object that there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between an act which is non-maleficent (such as procreation) and one which is maleficent (creation of life with the intention of destroying it).19 Critics also point out that whereas in the case of procreation there is the clear intention to benefit any resulting child, in the case of embryo research there is no intention to benefit the entity created. These distinctions have less purchase than they think, however. This is because much turns on how the respective acts are described. The normative description of the deliberate creation of research embryos being "maleficent" is inapt when we pitch the act in terms of: "Researchers unavoidably destroy embryos in pursuit of cures for millions of very ill people." If this is a linguistic fudge, we can note that in any country where embryo research is permitted but only to aid reproduction or our understanding of it, policy-makers happily indulge such fudges. The normative descriptive terms "non-maleficent" and "benefit" seem less apt with respect to procreation when it is described as "knowingly risking loss of some early lives in the pursuit of the selfish preference to have a child." It is hard to erase, at least in convincing fashion, complicity in, if not intended, death of some lives, from the procreative story. Moreover it is difficult to sustain the idea that procreation is motivated by the desire to benefit a new life. Certainly, the lives that perish in the process have not been benefited by being brought into existence. Furthermore the desire to have offspring is really about benefiting the parent, it is not about other-regarding benefit — the child's or that of the human species. The point is not that we do wrong when we procreate. The point is that we procreate without a second thought as to what it involves. Even if the arguments we have just advanced fail to convince, it remains the case that it cannot be so much the loss tout court of early lives that bothers individuals, but the non-natural uses for which these early lives might be employed.

In the end, the defence of natural procreation from the objection that people actively conspire in the death of early life when they procreate, boils down to the claim that it defensible because it is an unavoidable, natural state of affairs. Again, we find that the "natural" is being trumpeted as the "good." The view that natural procreation is desirable whatever happens in the course of it, fundamentally, is a conception of the sacred.20 This leads us back to the question we asked above: How do we resolve disputes in the policy arena, over differing conceptions of what is sacred about human life?

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