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Ethics Matters

Embryonic Ethics

June 1, 1999
Web posted at: 1:17 p.m. EDT (1717 GMT)

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

Embryos are back in the news -- not because they were mixed up in a fertility clinic or part of a contentious divorce settlement. Instead the news about embryos is their promise in research that may lead to treatments for everything from spinal cord injury to growing organs for transplant. But that promise comes with a price -- these truly revolutionary medical breakthroughs will require the destruction of human embryos. Is this a price we should be willing to pay? Or are human embryos so special that not even lifesaving medical benefits can offset the moral costs?

for Bioethics

What's your opinion?

President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission is considering this question, along with when, if ever, the government should sponsor research in which human embryos will be destroyed during their use as the source of stem cells, the all-purpose cells that generate all the tissues and organs of the body. These questions promise to be not only ethically challenging but politically contentious. More than 70 members of Congress have vowed to fight the use of federal dollars for any embryo research.

Promising science, but no federal money

This is not the first time the use of tax dollars for embryo research has been considered. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration banned federal support for any research involving human embryos. Embryo research in the United States is not illegal. It's only government funding that is not allowed. A government panel revisited the policy in 1993, but the policy remains in place. At stake are not only millions of federal research dollars, but the research progress that comes from a government commitment.

What kind of life?

Standing in the way of research are questions about how we should use human embryos. For those who view embryos as human lives deserving of the same respect as a child or adult, research that kills embryos is no more acceptable than would be research that killed adults. For those who view embryos as a collection of cells akin to other human tissue, research is acceptable and relatively uncontroversial.

For many people, however, intuition tells them that the status of human embryos lies somewhere in between these two views. An embryo seems to represent some kind of life, with a different potential than either the sperm or egg from which it began only a few minutes before. And that potential strikes many of us as deserving of respect in how the embryo is used or treated. But how far should that respect go? Does it matter that the proposed use offers great benefit? Does it matter where the embryos come from?

Does intention matter?

One potential supply of embryos for research is the many infertility clinics across the United States and around the world. These clinics create embryos for use in in-vitro fertilization (IVF), many of which are never used. Such "spare" embryos (estimated at more than 30,000 in the United States alone) are frozen in clinics, waiting to be implanted or disposed of.

Frozen embryos hold limited promise. The therapeutic "gold standard" would be cells that are matched to their recipient. Rather than search for matching embryos from the spare supply, it would be better to create embryos using sperm and egg from related individuals. Or for the perfect match, an embryo cloned from a patient's cells could yield implantable cells or solid organs without risk of rejection.

For some, the ethics of the two cases are different. Using spare embryos that were created with the intention of trying to have a child but have become unnecessary for that purpose is somehow different from creating embryos with the intention of extracting their stem cells. Whether intention matters depends on your perspective. What is clear, however, is that for the embryo, the outcome is the same.

A renewed debate on the use of human embryos in research has begun, driven in large part by the clear benefits it seems to offer. In the early 1980s, with no compelling case for research, it was easier to hold to principles that rejected the use of embryos. But now the real promise of research is challenging just how long those principles can stand in the face of pragmatism.

When, if ever, should the government sponsor research in which human embryos will be used as the source of embryonic stem cells, the all-purpose cells that generate all the tissues and organs of the body? Does it matter that the embryos are killed in the process? Do human embryos deserve respect? Does it matter that the proposed use offers great benefit? And does it matter where the embryos come from -- spare embryos from infertility clinics vs. embryos created for use in research?

Post your opinion here.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.

Cell scientists hope to grow human spare parts
May 22, 1999
Presidential panel recommends limited embryo research
May 24, 1999
Stem cells promise big breakthroughs in treating disease
January 21, 1999

Genetic Information Research Institute
University of Rome: Bioethics Links
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