Human Evolution and Species Protection

Human Embryonic Stem Cell research in general, but the immortalizing properties of such research in particular raises another acute question. If we become substantially longer lived and healthier, and certainly if we transformed ourselves from "mortals" into "immortals" we would have changed our fundamental nature. One of the common defining characteristics of a human being is our mortality. Indeed in English we are "mortals"—persons; not "immortals" or Gods, demi-gods or devils. Is there then any moral reason to stay as we are simply because it is "as we are"? Is there something sacrosanct about the human life form? Do we have moral reasons against further evolution whether it is "natural" Darwinian evolution, or evolution determined by conscious choice?

One choice that may confront us is as to whether or not to attempt treatments that might enhance human functioning, so-called "enhancement therapies." For example it may be that because of their regenerative capacities stem cells inserted into the brain to repair damage might in a normal brain have the effect of enhancing brain function. Again it would be difficult if the therapies are proved safe in the case of brain damaged patients to resist requests for their use as enhancement therapies. What after all could be unethical about improving brain function? We don't consider it unethical to choose schools on the basis of their (admittedly doubtful) claims to achieve this, why would a more efficient method seem problematic?

We should not of course attempt to change human nature for the worse and we must be very sure that in making any modifications we would in fact be changing it for the better, and that we can do so safely, without unwanted side-effects. However if we could change the genome of human beings, say by adding a new manufactured and synthetic gene sequence which would protect us from most major diseases and allow us to live on average twenty five per cent longer with a healthy life throughout our allotted time, many would want to benefit from this. In high-income countries human beings now do live on average twenty five per cent longer than they did 100 years ago and this is usually cited as an unmitigated advantage of "progress." The point is sometimes made that so long as humans continued to be able to procreate after any modifications, which changed our nature, we would still be, in the biological sense, members of the same species. But, the point is not whether we remain members of the same species in some narrow biological sense but whether we have changed our nature and perhaps with it our conception of normal species functioning.

THE ETHICS OF STEM CELL RESEARCH. Stem cell research is of ethical significance for three major reasons:

1. It will for the foreseeable future involve the use and sacrifice of human embryos.

2. Because of the regenerative properties of stem cells, stem cell therapy may always be more than therapeutic—it may involve the enhancement of human functioning and indeed the extension of the human lifespan.

3. So-called therapeutic cloning, the use of cell nuclear replacement to make the stem cells clones of the genome of their intended recipient, involves the creation of cloned pluripotent (cells that have the power to become almost any part of the resulting organism—hence pluri-potent)and possibly totipotent cells (cells which have the power to become any part of the resulting organism including the whole organism), which some people find objectionable.

In other venues, John Harris has discussed in detail the ethics of genetic enhancement (Harris, 1992, 1998a) and the ethics of cloning (Harris, 1997, 1998b, 1999b). The focus of this entry, however, is on objections to the use of embryos and fetuses as sources of stem cells.

Because aborted fetuses and preimplantation embryos are currently the most promising sources of stem cells for research and therapeutic purposes, the recovery and use of stem cells for current practical purposes seems to turn crucially on the moral status of the embryo and the fetus. There have, however, been a number of developments that show promise for the recovery and use of adult stem cells. It was reported in 2002 that Catherine Verfaillie and her group at the University of Minnesota had successful isolated adult stem cells from bone marrow and that these seemed to have pluripotent properties (capable of development in many ways but not in all ways and not capable of becoming a new separate creature), like most human embryonic stem cells have. Simultaneously, Nature Online published a paper from

Ron McKay at the U.S. National Institutes of Health showing the promise of embryo-derived cells in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

Such findings indicate the importance of pursuing both lines of research in parallel. The dangers of abjuring embryo research in the hope that adult stem cells will be found to do the job adequately is highly dangerous and problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is not yet known whether adult cells will prove as good as embryonic cells for therapeutic purposes; there is simply much more accumulated data about and much more therapeutic promise for embryonic stem cells. Second, it might turn out that adult cells will be good for some therapeutic purposes and embryonic stem cells for others. Third, whereas scientists have already discovered that virtually any gene in embryonic stem cells can be modified or replaced, this has not yet been established to hold for adult stem cells. Finally, it would be an irresponsible gamble with human lives to back one source of cells rather than another and to make people wait and possibly die while what is still the less favored source of stem cells is further developed. This means that the ethics of embryonic stem cells is still a vital and pressing problem and cannot for the foreseeable future be bypassed by a concentration on adult stem cells.

RESOLVING THE ETHICS OF RECOVERING STEM CELLS FROM EMBRYOS. There are three more or less contentious ways of resolving the question of whether it is ethically permissible to use the embryo or the fetus as a source of material, including stem cells, for research and therapy. The three methods involve: (1) solving the vexing question of the moral status of the embryo; (2) invoking the principle of waste avoidance; and (3) showing that those who profess to accord full moral status to the embryo either cannot consistently do so or do not in fact believe (despite what they profess) that it has that status. Regarding the first of these, it is difficult to determine whether there will ever be sufficiently convincing arguments available for this question to be finally resolved in the sense of securing the agreement of all rational beings to a particular view of the matter (Harris, 1985, 1999a). Putting aside this contentious issue, then, the other two issues will be discussed below.

The principle of waste avoidance. This widely shared principle states that it is right to benefit people if we can, that it is wrong to harm them, and that faced with the opportunity to use resources for a beneficial purpose when the alternative is that those resources will be wasted, we have powerful moral reasons to avoid waste and do good instead.

That it is surely better to do something good than to do nothing good should be reemphasized. It is difficult to find arguments in support of the idea that it could be better (more ethical) to allow embryonic or fetal material to go to waste than to use it for some good purpose. It must, logically, be better to do something good than to do nothing good, just as it must be better to make good use of something than to allow it to be wasted.

It does not of course follow from this that it is ethical to create embryos specifically for the purposes of deriving stem cells from them. Nevertheless, in all circumstances in which "spare" embryos have been produced that cannot, or will not, be used for reproduction, because they have no chance of developing into normal adult human beings, it must be ethical to use such embryos as sources of stem cells or therapeutic material or for research purposes.

Does anyone really believe that embryos are moral persons? One way in which stem cell research and therapy using human embryos might be successfully defended is to draw a distinction between what people say and what they do, or rather to point out that there may be an inconsistency between the beliefs and values of people as revealed by their statements on the one hand and by the way they behave on the other. Although many people, including most so-called pro-life or right-to-life supporters, are prone to make encouraging noises about the moral importance of embryos, and even sometimes talk as if embryos have, and must be accorded, the same moral status as human adults, such people very seldom, if ever, behave as if they remotely believe any such thing. Taking for the moment as unproblematic the idea, made famous by the Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470—399 b.c.e.), that "to know the good is to do the good," many pro-life advocates do not behave consistently with their professed beliefs about what is good. A few examples must suffice.

One would expect that those who give full moral status to the embryo, who regard it as a person, would both protect embryos with the same energy and conviction as they would their fellow adults and mourn an embryo's loss with equal solemnity and concern. This, however, they do not do. It is true that some extreme pro-life advocates in the United States have taken to murdering obstetricians who perform abortions, but those same individuals are almost always inconsistent in some or all of the following ways.

For every live birth, up to five embryos die in early miscarriages. Although this fact is widely known and represents massive carnage, pro-life groups have not been active in campaigning for medical research to stem the tide of this terrible slaughter. Equally well known is that, for the same reasons, the menstrual flow of sexually active women often contains embryos. Funeral rights are not usually routinely performed over sanitary towels, although they often contain embryos. In the case of spare embryos created by assisted reproductive technologies, there has not been the creation of a group of pro-life women offering their uteruses as homes for these surplus embryos. In his 1992 book, Wonderwoman and Superman, John Harris had to invent a fictitious quasi-religious order of women, "The Sisters of the Embryo," who would stand ready to offer a gestating uterus to receive unwanted embryos because (surprisingly given the large numbers of pro-life women available) there has never been such a movement. Indeed, anyone engaging in unprotected intercourse runs substantial risk of creating an embryo that must die, and yet few people think that this fact affords them a reason either to refrain from unprotected intercourse or to press for medical research to prevent this tragic waste of human life.

Finally, it is notorious that many pro-life supporters, including many catholics, are prepared to permit abortions in exceptional circumstances, for example, to save the life of the mother or in the case of rape. In the former situation, however, the right course of action for those who believe the embryo has full moral status is to give equal chances to the embryo and the mother (perhaps by tossing a coin) in cases where one may survive but not both. In the case of rape, because the embryo is innocent of the crime and has therefore done nothing to compromise its moral status, the permitting of abortion by those who give full status to the embryo is simply incoherent (Richards).

These cases provide reasons for thinking that even if the views of those who believe the embryo to have the same moral status as normal adult human beings cannot be conclusively shown to be fallacious, it can at least be shown that these views are inconsistent with practice and that the "theory" is therefore not really believed by those who profess it or indeed that it is not actually compatible with the lives that human beings must, of necessity, lead.

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