Even if an embryo is a full person, can embryo destruction still be ok?

Saturday, 26 July, 2008

The title of this work asks a difficult question for anyone to answer in a way that reflects their full view. It is easy to respond flippantly, saying “No, killing is always wrong, no matter the good that could come of it” or “The ends justify the means”. But from experience, I know these answers do not always reflect the view taken outside of the ‘status of the embryo’ debate. So, if we do accept that an embryo deserves all human rights, does that mean that no treatment or cures to come of it are justifiable? I wish to take you through an embryonic stem cell research scenario, and then a few other scenarios which I will argue are ethically similar to judge responses. Finally, I will look at one scenario – that of normal human procreation – to see if it is similar.

In a future embryonic stem cell therapy, a human embryo – around four or five days after it was just a single cell – is harvested for stem cells. The inner cell mass (also known as an embryoblast) is a group of a few dozen cells that could give rise to any human body cell, except perhaps the placenta. Therefore, these cells could be taken out of the embryo and, instead of growing into a human child, could be multiplied endlessly in the lab, and then eventually turned into many human kidneys, human hearts and even human brain cells. But to get these replacement organs, which could be used to save lives of people who may never otherwise receive an organ, and replacement cells, which could prevent the need for organ replacement altogether by repairing the organ while it remains in the body, a human embryo must be sacrificed. So, that entails destroying a life in order to save many other lives.

Thought experiments A – Transplants and Terrorists

To examine the ethical problems that this may create, let us consider a thought experiment. This is Thomson’s transplant case:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

Now, I’m fairly sure that most people would say it is not acceptable for the doctor to kill the man. And it is because the pro-life camp see each human embryo as a little person, not morally different to the traveler in the above example, that they object to embryo-destructive yet life-saving research.

Let’s look at another, this time real, incident. This one is used by John Harris, in his recent work Enhancing Evolution, in the chapter titled ‘The Irredeemable Paradox of the Embryo’ (p117-8)

On September 11, 2001, passengers on flight “United 93” are reliably believed to have overcome hijackers and forced a hijacked plane to crash into a field in Pennsylvania, so forestalling the attempt to target a highly populated and high profile building, but killing everyone on board. Such an act, while defending the victims in the “target of choice” did involve killing the innocent passengers and crew.

Harris then goes on to consider the moral implications of this, and concluded that there is an inconsistency present for those who are pro-life in the embryo debate but also approve of the actions undertaken on United 93. While it is true that the innocent would have died anyway, so too does everyone at one stage; murder is no less wrong because of the inevitability of death. The unwilling transplant donor will also have died anyway, though it may have taken several decades. So why is it that we can’t kill a person in order to save lives, but the actions of a few passengers on United 93 are rewarded for killing to save lives?

Thought experiments B – Trolleys and more Trolleys

I suspect that to find the answer, one must look at a few thought experiments known to ethicists as ‘trolley problems’. The classic trolley problem is the ‘Bystander problem’, which goes like this:

A trolley (i.e. tram/train) is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a side track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single bystander on that side track. Should you flip the switch?

Generally, most people say that they would flip the switch – saving the five but killing the bystander (although some would say that this would make you responsible for the bystander’s death, but I say if you ‘d done nothing you would be responsible for five deaths). But a very interesting twist to this problem is the ‘Fat man’ scenario:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

People who say they would flip the switch often say they would not push the man. It appears that there is some sort of distinction between, as Harris puts it, “throwing trolleys at people and throwing people at trolleys”. The distinction lies in the fact that the Bystander is killed because saving five lives results in his death, and the Fat man is killed in order to save five lives. The embryo researchers are seemingly doing the former – destroying a human embryo in order to save lives – whereas the passengers of United 93 did the latter – saving lives but resulting in the death of innocents.

Don’t worry if you have a hard time working out the difference between these two points. I do too, and so does John Harris (Harris J, 2000). It appears we have evolved to think inactions that cause harm are more acceptable than actions that cause an identical harm. That is, killing is impermissible but letting die is not. But it’s just obvious, if we think about the problem with more than our gut, that choosing to do nothing (i.e. let somebody die) is still an action that results in the death of somebody – you have still killed them.

Therefore, unless there really is a significant difference between doing something because it has good consequences and doing something in order to bring about those good consequences, we are left with absolutely no distinction between embryo research and the United 93 passengers – no distinction between the two train scenarios. It is always permissible to act in a way that brings about the best results for everyone – because you are responsible for your actions, regardless of what you do.


Which brings us back to the original thought experiment, Thomson’s transplant. This would seem to be a case where the doctor kills in order to save lives, but as we have seen this is no different to the doctor killing a person because his death would allow many to survive. But this may still seem a bit extreme for other reasons, such as consent, extrinsic value, pain and so on.

But embryo research is very different from Thomson’s Transplant thought experiment. The donor is not unwilling, nor willing, because embryos do not have a will of their own – adult stem cells can’t consent to their use either, but their therapeutic use is accepted by most. The donor’s mother and father have presumably consented to the use of the embryo in research/therapy (as is current protocol for embryonic research). And embryos cannot feel pain, so this is not an issue.

So I am led to the conclusion that even if human embryos are little people, with a life as valuable as everyone else, embryonic stem cell research and therapy are still the right thing to do. The use of embryos in therapy and research is the action that has the most desirable consequences overall. Unless we believe that killing an embryo is far worse than letting dozens of patients die, then the good ends are sufficiently good to justify the means required to bring about those results. Pro-life groups will need to do more than show embryos are ‘one of us’ if they want to stop embryo destructive life-saving actions.



  1. Your arguments are nonsensical.In my study of logic and ethics, we know that an argument may be logical but totally wrong (as yours happens to be). We also looked carefully at something called “intentionality” and something else called “accident,” which it seems you have failed to do. It’s fairly obvious you have worked out your premises to fit your procrustean bed. Have a good night.

  2. There is nothing “accidental” about any of the thought experiments that I offered here. In all of these examples, the result would be the intended result. The agent knowingly and voluntarily acts to save lives and to take lives.

    Given that, is it not better to intend that five live yet one die, than to intend that one live and five die?

    As an aside, how can my arguments be logical and yet nonsensical? Are my premises nonsensical?

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