IVF and embryonic stem cell research: the social and ethical issues

IVF and embryonic stem cell research: the social and ethical issues

Kerrie Allen

When examining the question of the social and ethical issues surrounding IVF and embryonic stem cell research, one finds a plethora of them in each category.

The main ethical issue which comes to mind, when considering the use of embryos for clinical research, is the question of the life or the humanity of the embryo - when is the embryo a human life?

The questions to be answered are: from where have the embryos come and for what purpose do they exist?

IVF embryos are the result of the fertilisation of a sperm and egg in a laboratory (rather than naturally through sexual intercourse between a man and woman) due to the inability of a couple to conceive naturally.

Full human person

The embryo in this situation is greatly valued by the couple, as, it is hoped, through IVF the woman will become pregnant, bring the child to full-term within her womb, and give birth to the long-awaited child.

Considering this purpose, the embryo is then always considered a human life, for if it were not so then couples would not endeavour to pursue such practices for parenthood.

The embryo therefore exists for life - it is created to live. Even while in the "frozen stage" this embryo is a full human person, for everything about the person, from the moment of conception, is human, with the cells which represent the beginning stages of tissues and organs.

The genetic material within the embryonic person is already coded in order for the eyes to be brown or blue, the hair blonde or red, and the embryo is either a male or a female. It is in this sense, without even examining the theological issues of life, a full human person.

Two ethical issues then arise: when an embryo is found through genetic investigation to have a disability of some sort does this necessitate the conclusion that the embryo is not fully human, therefore warranting its destruction; and do "left over" embryos - those embryos that have been conceived within the laboratory and yet are unwanted for implantation by the couple for which they were conceived, lose their humanity as soon as they become "unwanted"?

As has already been shown, the embryo when "wanted" by the couple is naturally viewed as a human, a baby. Does it necessarily follow that whenever an embryo is "unwanted" it ceases to be human? Some have argued that this is in fact the case.

The ethical question here is deeply important: does life cease to be human life when humans decide it to be so?

Objections to such a view can be raised about moral and natural laws surrounding life and death. For if it is argued that human life begins at conception (whether natural or laboratory), then death occurs when that life is destroyed.

In the case of "left-over" embryos, if we look at this activity from a purely scientific view one still cannot escape the question of human life and death, for it necessarily follows that if the "left-over" embryo is wanted for the harvest of human parts, then one must accept that the embryo is fully human.

In such a case, an embryo's destruction for this purpose constitutes the killing of a human person, since, in order to obtain the human cells, the subject (or in this case "object") of harvest can only be fully human - one cannot obtain fully human cells from a non-human.

If this is the case, another ethical question arises with moral implications: can the killing of one human person be justified to save the life of another? And if so, should the most vulnerable human person (the embryonic person) be killed?

Social considerations

Turning to social considerations, one might ask whether the medical benefits of IVF and stem cell research will be available to all people? With the high costs of treatment and research will there be equality of access? What is the sociological impact (not to mention economic and emotional) to a couple having multiple IVF births from the one pregnancy?

The destruction of embryos can be arguably not good for society when many couples are childless and desiring children. Embryonic research could also affect the way society looks at children, setting a precedent for the future cloning of embryos and other non-therapeutic interventions into human genetic endowment.

The destruction of embryos found to have a disability or disorder of some kind sets the precedent for physical characteristics or intellectual capacity as determining the value and dignity of human persons. Such a view harks back to Nazi Germany, when people were killed on the basis of their race, intellect, or physical disability.

Debate needs to be generated about respect for life and the dignity of all human individuals, regardless of any of the characteristics mentioned above. Although many people continue to suffer from chronic illnesses and physical conditions for which there are no known cures, we need to ask whether easing their suffering is our only moral obligation?

Should the lives of embryonic humans be sacrificed for the good of other human beings? Meanwhile, is sufficient funding being provided so that adequate research can be conducted upon adult stem cells?

Dr Kerrie Allen is Research Officer for the Australian Family Association.

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