Moral Objections to Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Despite the alleged benefit to patients, ESCR [embryonic stem cell research] is morally problematic for at least five reasons.

First, you must kill the embryo to harvest its stem cells. If the embryo is a human person, killing it to benefit others is a clear-cut evil. It treats a distinct human being, with his or her own inherent moral worth, as nothing more than a disposable instrument to be used for someone else’s benefit. (I present a defense for the personhood of the embryo in section V., the Appendix.) The daunting prospect of creating a class of human subjects for the purpose of destructive research led Congress to ban federally funded [destructive] embryo research in 1996. Currently, the law specifically states (under Section 511 of the Labor/HHS Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 1999) that no funds may be used to create or destroy human embryos for research purposes.

Advocates of ESCR replied that research would be limited to those embryos scheduled to die anyway, specifically, ones leftover from invitro fertilization (i.e. so-called “spare” embryos) and those slated for elective abortions. In both cases, researchers would secure parental consent before harvesting the cells.

Critics of ESCR were quick to point out that this turns the nature of parental consent on its head. Following the Nuremberg Trials in 1948, the United States joined several nations in publishing ethical protocols for human experimentation. Those protocols clearly state that no human can be subjected to medical experiments without his or her full knowledge and consent. If that individual cannot give consent, a parent or guardian/protector can be appointed to make the decision. However, no experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur. Concern for the interests of the subject must always prevail over the interest of science and society. When a mother consents to an elective abortion or the discarding of leftover embryos, she abdicates her parental role as protector of the child’s best interest. She has, in fact, signed her child’s death warrant. Therefore, neither she nor anyone else can give authentic consent to destructive research because there is no honest attempt to serve the best interest of the child.

Furthermore, the claim that research is justified because “these embryos are going to die anyway” is specious. Even if an individual’s death is imminent, we still do not have a license to use him for lethal experiments. We cannot, for example, conduct experiments upon death-row prisoners or harvest their organs without their consent. Nor can we extract body parts from mortally wounded soldiers while they are dying on the battlefield.

Second, ESCR is morally problematic because an evil means is used to secure a good end. In essence, accepting embryonic stem cells obtained through elective abortion makes one an accomplice to a crime after the fact. Unlike adult organ donations, the death of the embryo is intentionally caused. This is hardly the same as when organs are recovered from someone killed in a tragic accident. Consider the case of a hospital that becomes the beneficiary of a gang of killers who supply it with fresh cadavers. Surely one could question the moral appropriateness of the hospital’s continuing cooperation with the suppliers. Or, as Scott Rae points out, what about a banker who regards the drug trade as morally wrong, yet agrees to accept drug money to finance housing for the poor? The banker in this case would be involved in complicity with the drug trade, even though he is not involved with the actual sale of narcotics.

German doctors convicted at the Nuremberg Trials argued passionately that they were only using the brains of Jews for the common good. They claimed that SS troops, not doctors, killed the Jews. Therefore, physicians had a moral imperative to make beneficial use of bodies the SS troops supplied them. The Court at Nuremberg rejected this claim. In the United States today, the New England Journal of Medicine and nearly every other peer-reviewed journal refuses to publish any results form the Nazi experiments because of the nature of the crimes committed.

Third, the rationale used to disqualify the embryo as a person strips all human beings, born and unborn, of inherent dignity. The 1994 NIH panel concluded that the human embryo deserves “profound respect,” but does not have the status of a human person. Panelists relied on the theory of panel member Ronald Green, who argued that human beings could be excluded from “personhood” if recognizing them as “persons” would block beneficial research. By this approach, there is no inherent value in any human being-of any age or condition-obliging us to respect that individual as a member of the human family. Put simply, Green’s ethics are thoroughly utilitarian. Right and wrong are determined solely by the consequences of a given act. Actions are moral if they increase happiness (benefits) and decrease pain for the greatest number of people.

However, some things--rape, slavery, murder--are wrong in themselves and cannot be justified with an appeal to overall benefit. Common sense dictates that we weigh both the rational intent of an act (deontological ethics) with its foreseen consequences (utilitarian ethics). If morals are strictly consequential, as Green implies that they are, how do we condemn a scientist who tortures toddlers to benefit pain research? Or, what if killing a child in the Roman Coliseum helps 50,000 sadists permanently overcome depression at the expense of only one person experiencing pain? Clearly the benefit to the thousands would exceed the pain of one child, but would that make the act just?

Green, of course, cannot say that the pain of the child outweighs the pleasure of the crowd because according to his view, a human child needed for medical research is no longer a “person” with rights we ought to respect. Furthermore, how would he know that the pain of the child is greater than the happiness of the crowd? What if the torture victim was not a child, but an adult who actually enjoyed the perverse treatment? Given that everyone benefits, it’s hard to imagine how Green could condemn such an act.

Fourth, the distinction between “spare” embryos and “research” embryos is morally incoherent and practically unworkable. The NIH panel insists that human embryos deserve “profound respect,” though destroying them for research purposes is not wrong. To hedge its incoherent position, the 1994 NIH panel proposed that destructive harvesting of cells be limited to so-called “spare embryos” from fertility clinics (which the NIH now calls embryos “in excess of clinical need”). Panelists insisted this was less immoral than creating embryos specifically for research. Congress in 1996, however, soundly rejected the distinction, with the House of Representatives voting 256-167 to deny federally sponsored research on any human embryo. They were right to do so. Morally, if it is wrong to create human embryos for destructive research, that is largely because destroying embryos for research purposes is itself an egregious moral wrong. It treats a distinct human being, with inestimable moral worth, as nothing more than a disposable instrument for someone else’s benefit.

Conversely, if one takes the view that human embryos have no inherent moral worth-that their value is purely instrumental-then why not create them solely for destructive research? ABC News ran a story four years ago about a woman whose father was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Having heard that brain cells from aborted babies could be used to treat the disease, she sought to conceive a child for the express purpose of aborting it four months later so its body parts could be used to treat her father. The NIH panel strictly forbids using tissue this way, but on what moral grounds? If the human embryo or fetus has no inherent worth, why not decide in advance that its sole purpose is to treat others?

Fifth, there is evidence that ESCR (and fetal tissue harvesting in general) could enhance abortion’s image as a moral good. At a minimum, it will convince some women that killing their unborn offspring redeems a desperate situation. While ESCR may not dramatically increase abortion rates among women not inclined to abort (prolife advocates must be careful to not overstate their case here), it could influence those who are undecided. Research shows tremendous ambivalence among women facing crisis pregnancy, with many suffering intense anxiety in the 24 hours before the abortion. The prospect of “redeeming the abortion” to provide tissue for someone else throws a powerful motivation into a psychologically complex situation.

A 1995 study by the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto found that, among women who would consider abortion, 17 percent would be more likely to have one if fetal tissue could be donated for medical use. When one considers the 1.4 million abortions performed annually in the United States, the increase that may occur is a genuine public health concern.

Scott Klusendorf is Director of Bio-Ethics at Stand to Reason. He trains prolife advocates to persuasively defend their views in the public square: