Wednesday, June 30, 2010

'Discarded anyway'? The rationale for embryo-destructive research

The following is from the March 2009 issue of MCCL News.

Human embryos used for embryonic stem cell research (which results in the embryos' destruction) are donated from fertility clinics, where they are "left over" from the in vitro fertilization process. Advocates of embryo-destructive research say these "excess" embryos would otherwise be thrown away, so rather than letting them go to waste, we ought to use them for research that could possibly benefit others.

This has been perhaps the single most prevalent argument in defense of embryo killing. But it fails for more than one reason.

First, it poses a false dilemma: So-called "excess" embryos need not be discarded or killed for research—they can now be adopted by loving parents. The Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program and others have been very successful in facilitating the adoption of frozen human embryos. With so many infertile couples in the United States waiting to adopt, every embryonic human can be given the chance to grow up.

Second, even assuming that excess embryos will be killed anyway, are we thereby justified in slicing them up for experimentation? Not if the embryo is a valuable human being. Human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect, not farmed for their useful parts. No one suggests that we kill and extract organs from terminally ill patients, death row inmates or dying soldiers on the battlefield—even though they are "going to die anyway." The human embryo, like every other human being, warrants our respect even if she will soon die.

Third, the debate over using spare embryos is actually a red herring. Advocates of embryo-destructive research acknowledge that fertility clinic embryos are not nearly adequate to their demands; the goal, rather, is the mass production of human embryos by cloning. Cloning is necessary to (theoretically) avoid embryonic stem cells' problem of immune rejection, as well as to supply enough embryos for researchers. Only 2.8 percent of the 400,000 frozen embryos in U.S. fertility clinics are designated for research, and even many of these may be unusable (RAND Law & Health). That's why recent legislation around the country has been written to explicitly sanction somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning, as a means of creating brand new humans to kill for experimentation.

The "discarded anyway" argument, therefore, fails on every count. "We should offer these extra embryos to infertile couples to implant and allow them to be born, and not kill them either by experimentation or by disposal," says Dr. Micheline Mathews-Roth of Harvard Medical School.

The scientific facts of embryology show that human embryos are distinct, living and whole (though immature) human organisms. Whether the result of natural fertilization, in vitro fertilization or somatic cell nuclear transfer, they are individual members of the human species at a very early stage of their development.

Embryo-destructive research relegates this class of vulnerable humans to the status of a natural resource we may harvest and exploit. It is a profound violation of the equal dignity and rights of human beings.