What is clear, though, is that it would be remiss to fail to engage with these questions in a manner that is commensurate with their depth, complexity and importance. With due regard to that, the following discussion provides a brief overview of some of the core ethical issues arising from the Research Involving Embryos Bill and to some extent the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill The current paper will confine its primary focus to the first set of problems, since many of the salient ethical issues about cloning will arise, as it turns out, in connection with embryonic stem cell research.
The paper takes most of the major ethical concerns in the debate to be encompassed by the following core questions:. The purpose of the following discussion is to clarify some relevant moral and conceptual distinctions connected with these core questions, and to clarify the basic structure of the major views and argument themes that have been developed by philosophers, bioethicists and theologians in response to these questions. Of course, in their more fully expanded form these distinctions and arguments will involve subtleties and complexities that are beyond the limited scope of this paper to address.
Nonetheless, the discussion here will hopefully give an impression of where some of those further complexities and subtleties might lie.
The possibility of destructive embryo research, particularly embryonic stem cell research, presents us with a moral problem because it appears to bring into tension two fundamental moral principles that we esteem very highly: one principle enjoins the prevention or alleviation of suffering, and the other enjoins us to respect the value of human life.
As noted, the harvesting and culturing of embryonic stem cells has considerable potential to bring about remarkable potential benefits in the way of alleviating debilitating medical conditions. So, it satisfies the first principle to a very great degree. On the other hand, there is a case to be made that the harvesting of human embryonic stem cells violates the second principle in that it results in the destruction of human life with value i.
Judging the Benefits
Accordingly, both principles apparently cannot simultaneously be respected in the case of embryonic stem cell research. The question then is which principle ought to be given precedence in this conflict situation. Should we give more weight to the first, and permit destructive embryonic stem cell research because of its remarkable potential benefits? Or should we give more weight to the second, and prohibit destructive embryonic research because it violates respect for the value of the.
This, at bottom, is the ethical problem generated by destructive embryo research.
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Crude as it may sound, responding to this problem calls for a moral calculation—a decision about how the positive value of destructive embryo research is to be weighted, from a moral point of view, in comparison to the negative value or disvalue of destroying embryos. Whatever way that calculation is done, it is important to get a clear idea of what moral weight each side of the equation has. This will involve:. The rest of this paper outlines some of the ethical arguments and philosophical considerations that have been considered relevant to these two matters.
Evaluating the beneficial consequences of embryonic stem cell research is not straightforward. There are complexities associated with assessing how realistic the potential of the benefits is, how alternatives with different combinations of benefits and drawbacks are to be compared, and factoring in all of the sometimes overlooked possible consequences of embryonic research.
Most attention has centred on the medical potential of embryonic stem cell research and cultivation, particularly somatic gene therapy for genetic disorders5, and the generation of replacement tissues and organs for transplant. It is important to keep in mind, however, that currently these benefits are potential ones. A sound evaluation of stem cell research needs to take account of the likelihood of achieving its beneficial outcomes. In matters of science, and particularly, in areas that are newly developing and comparatively uncharted such as embryonic stem cell research , it is sometimes difficult to settle on those probabilities with complete confidence.
It is the nature of scientific discoveries and progress, that they are not easily predicted. Both advances and impediments to advancement can arise unexpectedly. This uncertainty about how real the potential benefits are, needs to be kept in mind when weighing and evaluating the consequences of embryonic stem cell research. Whether destructive embryonic stem cell research is the right thing to do or not, will partly depend on what the alternatives are, and how their particular benefits and drawbacks balance out. There is another research program involving adult stem cells that are present in and drawn from bone marrow, brain and gut, and other tissues.
Some of these stem cells have a capacity to differentiate into a limited number of different cell types, such as blood cells, muscles and neurones i. But with that said, it is worth keeping in mind the points made above about the limited predictability of scientific advances, including the possibility of inducing adult stem cells to differentiate into a greater range of tissue types.
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The harvesting and use of adult stem cells for biomedical purposes, however, avoids some of the ethically and biomedically problematic features of using embryonic stem cells. For a start, harvesting adult stem cells does not involve the destruction of embryos. The extent to which that is an advantage will depend on the extent to which that destruction turns out to be a bad thing, and this will be taken up shortly. Tissues grown from adult stem cells will be immunologically compatible with the person from whom the stem cells are harvested. This means that those tissues can be transplanted into that person without fear of the body rejecting them.
Tissues produced from embryonic stem cells for the purpose of regenerative therapy, however, are unlikely to be immunocompatible with the person for whom they are intended. The immunological properties of the tissue are set by the characteristics of whatever embryo the stem cells are derived from. Apart from the ongoing use of immunosuppressant drugs with its possible serious side effects , two other potential solutions to this immunological limitation have been suggested.
Such an embryonic stem cell bank would be technically difficult and expensive to generate. In this process, the nucleus of a human oocyte or egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a cell taken from the body of the intended tissue recipient.
The new egg is induced to develop into an embryo, from which immunocompatible stem cells are harvested. To date, there have only been one or two reported attempts at human cloning that have met with some success. A number of ethical objections have been expressed to therapeutic cloning, all revolving around the creating of an embryo, and moreover, the creating of an embryo for a use that will destroy it. These objections and arguments usually rely centrally on certain views about the value or moral status of the embryo, and these views will be outlined later in the paper.
Whatever benefit the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells has in generating immunocompatible tissue, this benefit is likely to be possible only at the cost of having to engage in either the morally contentious practice of human therapeutic cloning, or the morally contentious practice of using and destroying a large number of embryos to create a sufficient range of embryonic stem cell lines for organ banks.
It is especially important to note also, that if the Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill is passed in its current form, and any kind of human cloning, including therapeutic cloning, is prohibited, there will be less opportunity to maximise the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research, and embryonic stem cells will effectively have less of the advantage they would otherwise have over adult stem cells.
The Research Involving Embryos Bill only permits excess ART embryos existing before 5 April to be used for research purposes in accordance with a licensing regime. It is a fact about those embryos that they would likely expire or succumb anyway. They would still be destroyed, in other words, but through exposure to natural processes.
Ethical Questions in the Stem Cell Debate
On the face of it, this looks as if the harm or negative value involved in embryos expiring whatever it might be will be the same whether embryo research is allowed or not. In each case the embryo will expire.
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But this impression can be a little oversimplified. Some philosophers argue that there is a moral difference between acts and omissions, between actively killing something, and passively failing to intervene to stop its death from other causes when one could have. Even though the outcome is the same in each case, it can be argued that there is something worse, or more morally culpable, about actively bringing about the death oneself. There are different views on what the moral difference between killing and letting die amounts to, and there are those who argue that there is no significant difference.
Whichever way one comes out on this, it is not clear that the act-omission distinction maps neatly onto the particular embryo research scenario under discussion. Destroying surplus embryos through research is certainly an act. But so too, some would argue, is removing surplus embryos from the cold storage that keeps them from expiring. They would hold that this looks less like failing to intervene in independently occurring causal processes that will lead to expiry , than an act that sets those processes in motion.
If this is true, then the first impression above will stand.
The harm or negative value involved in embryos expiring whatever it might be will be the same whether embryo research is allowed or not. Some would argue that there is an important logical upshot from this. If the only two alternatives in the circumstances destroying embryos in research vs making them succumb involve the same level of harm or disvalue or moral wrongness, but embryo research involves much greater benefits than the other alternative, then it could be argued, it makes sense to opt for the more beneficial embryo research.
And indeed, some might construe that as a sufficient case for the moral preferability of that option. This would change, of course, if the relevant alternatives change—if say, embryos were purpose created for research, which were not pre-existing and destined to be expired. The embryonic stem cell debate has been pre-occupied with the biological and medical benefits or drawbacks of that research. Central as these certainly are, there are nonetheless other, often-overlooked non-medical impacts that may be important to factor in.
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Some of the major among these are possible social impacts including:.