Solving the Puzzle of the Moral Status of the Embryo and Fetus
In March 2006, 21 yo Cleveland man Christopher Challancin was driving home from a party with his 17 yo girlfriend, Jessica Karos. She was 4 months pregnant. They began to argue about her ability to care for their child. Challancin, who had been drinking, became angry. He began to weave high speed through traffic and crashed. Karos was left paralysed. The baby died. Challancin was unhurt. Because he killed the baby, he was charged with homicide and sentenced to five years.
In 2005, Alison Miller and Todd Parrish sued their fertility clinic in Chicago. They had been having IVF treatment back in 2002 and stored 9 embryos. One of these was “mistakenly” discarded. The clinic apologised and offered the couple a free cycle of IVF. They sued for the “wrongful death” of their embryo.
Every year, about 100 000 fetuses are aborted. No one is charged over these deaths. Thousands of embryos are also destroyed. The law on IVF in England and Australia requires their destruction after a period of time, 5 to 10 years.
How can killing a fetus at once be homicide and yet no crime at all? How can the destruction of embryos be required by law and widely practised but also, in some places, the crime of wrongful death? How can one act – killing early human life – be both right and wrong? This is the puzzle of social practice involving early human life.
One solution has been proposed by the Christian Right, the Catholic Church and “pro-life” movements. That solution is to give the embryo, from the moment of creation, a full right to life.
That strategy certainly resolves the conflict. Killing embryos and fetuses is always wrong. But it leaves us with no abortion (even after rape or when the woman’s life is at stake), no effective contraception (the commonest effective methods – IUD and pill – destroy embryos), no IVF and no effective control over our own reproduction. Many conservative religious and political leaders joyfully embrace these consequences, and seek to impose their values on society, because they are convinced they are right. This is the sort of disrespect of liberty and intolerance of which we so righteously accuse countries like Iran.
The kinds of Christian values which claim that the embryo has a full right to life account poorly for life in civilized western liberal societies and conflict with accepted practices, regardless of whether a few good men disagree.
There are other values which can account for our polar opposite moral norms, attitudes, practices and laws. This is a value to controlling our reproduction, in deciding how many children we will have and when to have them. “Go forth and multiply” – but there is a limit. Early human life has value when it is a part of plan to have a child. The reason why Challancin was wrong to kill his girlfriend’s baby was because she wanted to have that baby. Challancin is more like a drunk driver who recklessly kills an innocent child than a doctor who performs an abortion. Destruction of embryos is a moral crime when parents wanted them. It should have been Miller and Parrish who decided the fate of their embryos, not the Chicago clinic.
Here is the solution to the puzzle of our conflicting attitudes: embryos have special moral value when they are part of a plan to have a child, or at least desired by the people who made them. Embryos do not have special moral value when they are not desired by the people who formed them.
This is the only account of moral status – conditional moral status – that consistently accounts for accepted practices and laws around early human life.
Such a position has important implications for science. Creating embryos for research, either by cloning or by IVF, does not destroy any embryo that is a part of anyone’s plan to have a family. It does not deny the world of a child that would otherwise have existed. It is morally equivalent to engaging in sex using contraception. Both create and destroy embryos, the difference being research is to save lives, but sex is just for fun.
Opposing embryo research represents a backdoor assault on hard won reproductive liberty. It holds embryos as sacred and commits us to a world of vast overpopulation and unbearable family size. Women should not be compelled to bear 10 children or be abstinent.
The two missing pieces in the puzzle of early human life are the value of reproductive liberty and the conditional moral status of early life. Once we solve the puzzle, rational opposition to creating embryos for research melts away.
See more on these issues:
Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, Actualizable Potential, Reproduction, and Embryo Research: Bringing Embryos into Existence for Different Purposes or Not at All Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (2010), 19: 51-60