Posts Tagged ‘embryo research’


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.


Inconsistancy in the “life begins at conception” argument

Wednesday, 25 June, 2008

The view that human life begins at conception is a favoured view of most of the pro-life camp. By it, they do not mean that the sperm and ova were not alive and only became so at conception, but rather that ‘human life’ – in the special sense of a person who deserves protection under the law – begins at conception. Unfortunately for them, this view is logically inconsistent with that pesky thing called reality. There is absolutely no sense in which life, whatever is meant by the term, could be said to commence during the process of conception.

Conception is a process, not a distinct point in time

The process of conception, also known as fertilisation, involves many chemical reactions and processes. It is not an instantaneous occurrence. Look at the diagram I made:

So somewhere along that set of chemical reactions, which finally result in two cells with a unique human genetic combination (the zygote immediately after the fusion of sperm has two pronuclei – one from the sperm and one from the ovum), are we to say that a single human life has started? If so, at what point does that happen?

The fact of the matter is that conception is no less of an arbitrary ‘line in the sand’ than any other point that one picks, such as the development of the brain, birth or development of self-awareness. But there is nothing wrong per se with something being arbitrary (after all, the time when people are old enough to vote is arbitrary), so we should now look at whether there is a good reason for not using conception as the start of a human being’s life.

Twins, chimeras and clones

The idea that a “human life begins at conception” also has problems with the existence of identical twins and tetrazygotic chimeras and the possibility human clones. Again, I have diagrams to explain these.

Consider the case of monozygotic twins, as explained by the above diagram. Here we have one fertilisation event, but two individuals result. Do those twins have to share the ‘human life’ they had from conception? Surely not, for we treat twins as separate persons. So, when did both lives start, if not at conception? During the twinning process? Or sometime after? And if lives start during the process of twinning, perhaps it is morally wrong not to twin an embryo, as it prevents the cells from realising their potential as multiple human beings.

Also consider the above diagram of the formation of a tetragametic (four gametes, two sperm + two eggs) chimera. Such an individual results when fraternal twins, derived from separate conceptions, merge very early in development to form a single individual with some cells with one genome and some cells with another (if the two zygotes were different, such as one female and one male or one dark-skinned and the other pale-skinned, this can be noticeable on the person). So, do chimeric people get twice as much human life, seeing as they resulted from two conceptions? Or was a life destroyed when the two embryos merged, despite not a single cell being destroyed? If the intentional formation of chimera is morally wrong, why isn’t the failure to twin an embryo?

Consider finally the case of a human clone (see diagram above), which hasn’t yet occurred but is surely possible. In this case, there is no conception event to be found (unless you go back to the one that created the somatic cell), but yet an individual results. Do clones not have any human life? Surely not, for they would be persons like you or I. So if life begins at conception, how can there be life without conception? Does life begin at conception OR nuclear transfer?

As can be seen, the idea of human life beginning at conception has some serious issues with the processes that can, and sometimes do, occur in human reproduction.


It is often claimed that conception should be the marker for a human life because it marks the formation of something that can grow into a thinking, feeling, reasoning human being. Apart from the fact that conception is not a distinct point, but a process, this potentiality argument has two key problems.

First, if a zygote should be protected because it can from a human being, why not also protect the sperm and eggs, for they can form a zygote which in turn can form a human being. And seeing as males can form billions of sperm but females only form thousands of ova, it follows that males are a million times more worthy of protection than females. But seeing as this conclusion is ludicrous, there must be something wrong with the potentiality argument.

The second, a major flaw, is that being potentially something isn’t the same as being something already. To see this, consider extrapolating the potential argument in the other direction: all human beings will die. And, seeing as a zygote will form a human being who will later form a corpse, it follows that we should treat both people and zygotes as if they were corpses. If we can give the right to life for an unborn baby, maybe we should give the right to a decent burial for a pre-dead corpse (i.e. a live baby). Not to mention that skin cells can replace sperm in forming a human being (see the cloning diagram above), so it follows that each skin cell destroyed is akin to destroying a human being. Unless, of course, having the potential to do something or be something isn’t equal to actually doing or being it.

Member of the human species

Perhaps it could be argued that an embryo should be protected because it is human. We don’t morally protect our own skin cells, despite the fact they are living human skin cells. So, what does the embryo have that skin cells don’t? If the answer is potential to develop into a human being, then this is just the potentiality argument again (and by cloning, perhaps a skin cell does have the potential to develop into a human being).

However, if the answer is that an embryo is a human being (and we accept that as truth, even though it is arguably false) then we need to then ask whether being a human being is enough to give the moral weight – the intrinsic value – conveyed by the term ‘human life’. Perhaps being a human being is only special because it usually correlates with having some other property, such as consciousness or self-awareness, that is special. In that case, then we should be using that other property to value the embryo instead of whether or not the embryo is a human being.

Consider whether it would be acceptable to kill a member of a non-human species that was capable of thinking human-like thoughts, was conscious and felt their lives were valuable, such as the intelligent aliens (think E.T. or Jar Jar Binks) or robots of science-fiction. If such a species (biological or not) is also worthy of protection, due to the fact they have certain psychological characteristics, then isn’t it safe to say that is those characteristics that are truly being valued here?

In addition, applying rights based on what group you belong to, rather than what you are able to do, seems a lot like bigotry or prejudice. History shows us many applications of rights based on being of a certain economic class, race, gender or religious group. Why should doing the same for being part of a species be any different?

Unique genetic combination

It is often said that because the zygote is a new human being because it has a unique human genome. This is a relatively weak argument, because a unique genome is not required to form a human being (e.g. identical twins, or clones, or human parthenotes) and unique genomes often do not form human beings (e.g. mutated genomes of cancers or the modified genome of induced pluripotent stem cells). Unless we are willing to admit that melanomas are actually human beings because they have a different genome, and that a woman who is pregnant with her clone (or identical twin) is not actually pregnant with a human being, then this argument should be abandoned.

Failure of an embryo to implant

The fact that only a fraction of zygotes go on to form a human being also hits hard the “life begins at conception” dogma. Firstly, the results of most conceptions are not viable embryos, and these abnormal embryos are usually passed out during a menstrual cycle. If such embryos are human beings, should we hold a funeral? Should we feel bad for not even realising they existed in the first place? Also, assisted reproductive technologies are much like natural reproduction in that far more embryos are conceived than result in pregnancy, and therefore shouldn’t IVF and sex be just as much of a problem as abortion? Or is the death of dozens of lives justified if it creates a life in the process (if that is the case, shouldn’t doctors and nurses be making babies instead of saving lives)?

Further, the oral contraceptive pill is known to make the uterine environment more hostile to any embryos that would implant there. The hormone progesterone released during breastfeeding acts in the same was as the oral contraceptive pill (in fact, progesterone analogues are the key ingredient of the pill), which is why breast-feeding is a ‘natural contraceptive’. Therefore, shouldn’t both the contraceptive pill and sex while breast-feeding be complained about just as much as abortion and embryonic stem cell research?


It is evident that the idea that life begins at conception is at odds with reality. Many human beings can result from a single conception, many conceptions can result in just one human being and theoretically human beings could develop without any conception event occurring at all. The idea that conception is a key point in the process of development is unfounded, as the potential to develop into a human being is not only possessed by sperm and eggs, but is completely logically fallacious in the first place. In addition, it doesn’t even appear that being a human being qualifies as having the intrinsic value required to convey moral status, as it is possible that non-human beings should have same intrinsic value attributed to ‘human life’. Neither can genetics rescue this argument, for a unique genetic composition is possessed by some non-human beings, and some human beings don’t have a unique genetic composition. Finally, the way most people act normally, and the way nature is, is very wasteful of zygotes, making the conclusions of this argument very difficult in practice.

It is not a scientific fact that human life begins at conception. The truth is that human life, in the sense of a person like you or I, emerges slowly from the genetic information and molecules that made up the sperm and eggs in your parents body, from the processes of controlled growth of the resulting embryo and foetus, using nutrients that nourished you in the womb. Science informs us that it is a continuous process. Those looking for a nice distinct point in time that can be used as the starting point of each person’s existence will be sorely disappointed if they look at the science. Philosophically, I’d argue that no intrinsic value of human beings exists, except for the value applied by a being to itself. Although this may be criticised for being overly restrictive (not attributing any intrinsic value to neonates), this criticism only works if we have a another significant reason to think neonates should have such value – I do not believe such a reason exists (see also the latter part of this post).


German Parliament changes stem cell law

Saturday, 12 April, 2008

An update to the story I blogged about a couple of months ago regarding proposed changes to Germany’s stem cell laws. The proposed changes were just approved.

In brief, under German law (the Stem Cell Act of 2002) no embryos can be destroyed for research, but they were allowed to import embryonic stem cells lines created before 2002. But, of course those stem cell lines would have been created with inferior technology and knowledge, so scientists from the German Research Foundation lobbied to get the laws changed slightly to allow importation of more recent stem cell lines.

The law was passed yesterday, so now embryonic stem cell lines created before May 2007 are allowed to be imported into German.

It’s a minor loosening of very strict laws, but I guess any improvement is good news.


Good news from down under!

Tuesday, 8 April, 2008

The Australian Capital Territory has just ruled to allow therapeutic cloning. Which is of course sensible, because that brings it up to where the Federal Government was at in late ’06 – and most states have already done that. So, let’s just see what researchers at one of Australia’s greatest universities, the Australian National University, start doing with this relaxation in regulations.

Obligatory bad news – cybrids (even human-human cybrids) and hybrids specifically prohibited.

If you’re really geeky (like me), you can read the minutes of the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory for the 8th of April here.


How to determine the status of human embryos

Wednesday, 2 April, 2008

This bioethics twist on the classical ‘fat-man trolley problem‘ of moral philosophy can be used to determine whether a person considers embryos to be full human beings or not, and exactly how much of a human being an embryo is. So, here it is:

A train is hurtling down a track, and on this track is a single railway worker, unaware of the train. You are on a bridge under which the train will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. For reasons unknown, there is a refrigerator (from the local IVF clinic) on the bridge next to you, which you know contains a thousand human embryos – your only way to stop the train is to push the refrigerator off the bridge and onto the track, killing all thousand of the human embryos to save the life of the railway worker. Should you push the refrigerator off the bridge?

If this seems confusing, there is another very similar example that may make more sense because of its more realistic premise (though, technically, it is a version of the original trolley problem, not the fat man version):

Imagine that an IVF lab is on fire. A fireman realises that the roof is about to collapse and that he has very little time left, only enough to rescue either a tray of 1000 frozen embryos, or the lab technician, who is already unconscious because of the smoke. What should the fireman do?

To determine the moral status of a human embryo, all you must do is vary the number of embryos until it becomes immoral for them to be destroyed in the process of saving a life. Let that number of embryos be [E], then the perceived status of the embryo is PS, given by:

PS= 1/[E]


PS = perceived status of the embryo (1 is a full person, 0 is not a person at all)

E = number of embryos required to make their destruction in saving a single adult’s life morally unacceptable

The result you get from this thought experiment essentially can determine whether you are in favour of using human embryos in medical research or not (like embryonic stem cell research). The higher your PS score, the more likely you are to oppose embryo-destructive treatments and procedures. The lower your score, the more likely you are to be in favour of using human embryos to discover treatments for human diseases.

The fun part is when people hold the wonderfully contradictory position of having a low PS score but are hostile to embryo research (I’m sure the reverse is possible, but I don’t know anyone who holds it). Sparks fly with accusations of hypothetical hypocrisy!


Gordon Brown caves to Catholic scaremongering

Sunday, 30 March, 2008

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has yielded to the public pressure (most of it by religious nuts like Cardinal O’Brien) and is now going to let his ministers and MPs vote freely on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Well, at least on three of the controversial clauses:

  • Cybrid embryos – the HF&E Bill would allow for the creation of embryos containing both human and animal DNA, but only for research and they must be destroyed at a certain date
  • Fatherless IVF – under the HF&E Bill, fathers would no longer be required for an IVF pregnancy, allowing single-women and lesbians to have IVF children
  • Saviour siblings – the HF&E Bill would permit the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for ensuring that an embryo is a potential donor for a sick brother or sister

This decreases the chance of the Bill passing, but with any luck it should still be able to get through. I hope.

PS: Sorry for being late on this. I went away for four days, and didn’t have time to blog on anything.


Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 26 March, 2008

The Words this Wednesday come from Friday’s sermon by Catholic cardinal Keith O’Brien, given at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has given the Government’s support to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which, more comprehensively, attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular Bill.

Really, Keith? It the HF&E Bill worse than the Nuremburg Laws of Nazi Germany? Worse than the Apartheid legislation in South Africa? This legislation could save lives! Surely being forced to stay afflicted with a disease because people feel uneasy about curing you is a far worse afront to human dignity than the death of some embryos or the creation of cybrids.

It scares me that some people do actually think that this legislation is that wrong. After all, Cardinal O’Brien states the estimate that 2.2 million embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. The Holocaust saw the death of an estimated 3.8 million Jews. If one is irrational enough to believe that embryos have a right to life, it isn’t that hard to believe that this legislation is on par with Nazi policies.

Also, I wish to draw attention to this:

Further, I recently signed a letter with other Church Leaders which concluded: “This Bill goes against what most people, Christian or not, reckon is common sense. The idea of mixing human and animal genes is not just evil. It’s crazy!”.

Denying my freedom, when I am not harming anyone at all, is oppressive tyranny – evil and crazy too. I, for one, would like to have the mouse gene for L-gulonolactone oxidase inserted into my genome. This would make me immune to scurvy, and could possibly allow me to live a longer and healthier life even if I don’t go for a long sea voyage. Denying me that freedom is not only bad in itself, but it also harms my health, so to do so is far more evil than any violation of ‘human dignity’.

The Catholics have a lot of sway in Britain, so I fear that Cardinal O’Brien just killed the HF&E Bill for good. I still hold hope though. That’s all I can do from here down-under.