One of the most contentious issues in embryo ethics is the question of whether it is ever justifiable to bring human embryos into existence specifically for research purposes. Many would argue that research use of surplus embryos remaining after the completion of infertility treatment is ethically acceptable, since these embryos are destined to be destroyed in any case. At the same time, they may hold that the development of embryos for research purposes, so-called research embryos, is not morally justified.
The development of embryos for research purposes has been characterized as a novel practice that requires particular justification. Referring to embryos created through nuclear cell transfer, the President's Council on Bioethics in 2002 claimed that such research creation of embryos would constitute crossing a "major moral boundary" (p. 132). Yet decades of research on human IVF beginning in the 1930s required investigation of various methods of laboratory fertilization, followed by study of cleaving fertilized eggs to determine their normality before transfer to a woman was even considered (Soupart and Strong; Edwards and Steptoe).
Commentators agree that there is no ontological or intrinsic distinction between surplus embryos remaining after infertility treatment and research embryos developed specifically for study. Arguments that support a moral distinction must identify other morally relevant factors. The concept of respect is often invoked, as is the notion of intent.
Respect for the special status of the embryo seems to require that embryos be treated as entities of intrinsic value. When embryos are created purely for research purposes, they become instruments for purposes that have nothing to do with the embryos themselves. In Kantian terms, the embryos are used solely as means for the welfare of others rather than as ends in themselves. The practice of creating research embryos thus results in treating embryos as commodities, equivalent to mere cells or tissues.
In contrast, the intent to procreate justifies the development of embryos in the laboratory. Even when a large number of eggs is fertilized in an IVF procedure, each fertilized egg has an equal chance of being transferred to a woman and developing into a human being. Thus each zygote is equally respected for its procreative potential.
It is only because some of the embryos cannot be transferred (because of the decision of the progenitors, or because there simply are too many of them) that they become surplus embryos and are destined for destruction. It is arguably permissible to derive some good from the inevitable destruction of these embryos by using them in research. In doing so, one may be said to be choosing the lesser evil.
These arguments have been countered by a number of considerations.
It may be true that respect for the special status of the human embryo requires that it be treated differently from mere human tissue. But the concept of respect is vague and undetermined, so that a wide range of concrete interpretations is plausible. The claim that respect precludes all creation of research embryos gives heavy weight to one interpretation of the concept at the expense of any countervailing considerations. Research projects that include the development of embryos may promise significant benefits for relieving the suffering of living human beings. These benefits could outweigh a particular interpretation of respect.
While procreative intent may justify the creation of embryos in the laboratory, it is plausible that other sorts of purposes could provide equally valid justifications. The treatment of infertility, an elective medical procedure, may even hold lesser moral significance than the development of cures for life-threatening or significantly disabling diseases and trauma outcomes. Hence such goals may also justify the creation of embryos.
Moreover, surplus embryos do not appear purely by chance. Clinicians frequently make a decision to fertilize large numbers of eggs in order to optimize the chances of establishing a pregnancy. The initial intent is not to give every zygote the opportunity for implantation, but to achieve one or more pregnancies and births, as desired by the progenitors. A later decision to direct unused embryos to research cannot be justified by the principle of the lesser evil, since the existence of surplus embryos should have been anticipated. This situation was deliberately caused and could have been avoided. Thus it is invalid to invoke the principle of the lesser evil to justify use of surplus embryos in research, while maintaining that any creation of research embryos is prohibited.
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