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What is the most moral way to use embryos?

By: Francesca Minerva

Reading this news  about a couple that donated two embryos to another sterile couple, I started to ask myself if embryo donation is really the most moral way to use embryos. Some people, indeed,  suggest that this choice is the one that people who take into account human life should take. We read “The concept of donating embryos to other couples got a push eight years ago under President George W. Bush, who dedicated federal funding to promote, in his terms, “embryo adoption.” The federal funding has since increased to $4.2 million. Now, Georgia has passed the nation's first state law symbolically recognizing embryo adoption”. I am especially skeptical about two issues connected to embryo donation.

One is the following: if the main concern of couple who adopt embryos is to save as many embryos as possible because they consider them as morally valuable as already born children, why shouldn’t they adopt children who are already born?  In-vitro fertilization involves costs and health risks for women that adoption does not involve. It seems, then, that anything equal, adopting a child instead of an embryo is a more rational choice.

Moreover, if the goal is to save as many human lives as possible, we need a reason why an embryo is more entitled to be “saved” than a five year old child, for example. An explanation would be that an embryo deserves more than a child to be saved, but even the most extreme Catholic never claimed this.

My idea is that other reasons are involved. The couples who adopt embryos are couples who want to experience a pregnancy, and in this way they connect to the newborn in a way which is different from the adoption of a child who grew up in a womb of a person who is external to the couple. I don’t have any problem with accepting this reason as a very good one in adopting embryos instead of already born babies, but it is for a completely different reason than the “saving human lives” one.

But there is an even stronger concern about the morality of this choice as the most ethical one.
It seems to me that the potential benefits that can come from embryonic stem cell research on embryos, in the long run, will allow us to save more lives or to increase the quality of the lives of many people.

We are not fully aware of the future benefits that can be derived from stem cell research, but potentially it will be possible to use stem cells to cure a significant number of diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, SMA, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. Stem cells can also be used for the reconstruction of human organs and tissues.

Now, if we think of the number of people who die everyday because of diseases that could be cured thanks to researches on embryos, it seems that using embryos for research will save more lives than implanting them.

So, if the intention to save human lives is the only reason that can  justify embryo donation, it does not seem to be a strong enough one, because more lives can be saved using embryos for research.  If I am right, Bush should have better spent $4.2 million on research instead on promoting embryo adoption.

On the other hand, it seems that embryo donation is as morally justifiable as any other type of medical assisted fertilisation when it is motivated by the desire of two people to become parents.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I support using and destroying embryos as a means to scientific discoveries. But I think the opponents, and the pro embryo “adoption” people, object to just that use and push “adoption” as part of their campaign to stop that use. They see a deontological constraint against embryo destruction as a means to find cures that later will save (more) lives. They are not consequentialist with “saved lives” as the value to maximize, as your argument seems to assume.

  2. “if the main concern of couple who adopt embryos is to save as many embryos as possible because they consider them as morally valuable as already born children, why shouldn’t they adopt children who are already born?”

    Francesca, sorry if this early to pull out a fallacy card but you are presenting a false dilemma. Interestingly I read a similar argument by a person who objected to dolphins being given legal personhood rights as you have so many humans dying of preventable causes that we ‘should get our own house in order first’. (Which is also ad hoc if one understands who rights have been formulated anyway.) If they meet the pertinent moral criterion they deserve as much attention and resources as other similar entities that do.

    & with due respect personally I really don’t understand why anyone would even bother with the ‘future benefits’ argument. I know Peter Singer wasn’t advocating we use orphaned severely retarded infants for medical experiments in part of his argument against Speciesism, nonetheless if the ‘future benefits’ argument has any weight I don’t see how one using this position can argue against it for similar benefits.

    Jon it would be good if you and others would refrain from making the mistake of lumping all people that take a Pro-life position-or something similar as religiously inclined. I’m a strong atheist and I do so for secular consequentialist reasons.

  3. Simon, I never mentioned religion, as your re-reding of my comment will display. Second, your post is unclearly put. Please clearly state your consequentialist pro-life-ish case.

  4. Francesca Minerva

    I’m sorry there was a problem managing the comments and I didn’t read them until now.
    Very briefly, Jon, I know Catholics for example are in principle against embryo destruction, but I wanted to point out as in this way they are responsible for the death of other people. Anyway even the Pope never said an embryo is a person but that it “should be treated like it were a person”. So it seems to me there is still room to discuss if it is good to use embryos to save the lives of people who already are a person. If not, they have to admit they are responsible for these deaths somehow.

    Simon I meant that anyway you need to show reasons why you prefer to save an embryo instead of a child, since I repeat, even not the Pope says embryos are persons. The explanation to me is that the main goal is not to save a life but to experience pregnancy etc., which is fine with me, but is still a different reason.

    Finally, not all pro-life people are religious, true, but not all dogma and prejudices are religious too. One can be atheist and believe in fairies and gnomes. Atheism or secularism are not a guarantee that every opinion one has is rational.
    Said this, I’m fine if someone thinks an embryo is a person, in this specific case of embryos used for research, I think my argument still works.
    We can at least agree that an embryo doesn’t feel the pain (the ones used for research are all under 14 days) and has non feelings and connection for the world around it. In this case I don’t see a good reason for the life of a “person” in such peculiar condition shouldn’t be “sacrificed” in order to save the lives of many other people (who can feel the pain etc).

  5. Francesca I rather think the shoe is actually on your foot. The current legal and societal moral stance is based largely on personhood-throw in rights and desires- and bodily autonomy, –granted the UK includes twinning- allowing society to kill these entities. Tooley deals with this & Warren as well, nothing new.

    Yet society deviates from these reasons; since you are defending this position the onus is on you justifying why this is so. You of all people should know that I don’t even have to give an opposing account, the validity of your argument has nothing to do with any another account, but rests on itself.

    BTW it might surprise you that at least one progressive is now logically advocating infanticide for unwanted babies-I’d imagine Tooley would understand- and since they could also be used or experimented on without a hint of pain, surely the benefit of their ‘sacrifice’ to existing persons would be preferable to such a valuable ‘resource’ going to waste?

    Also since I disagree with much of Catholic theology raising the Pope is neither here nor there.& BTW much of what I’ve seen of the work of some conservative philosophers on the subject is either IMO not up to scratch, or seriously lacking an appreciation of a secular perspective. So whether this or that Pro-Lifer says they are a person, again is neither here nor there.

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