Moral Status, Moral Value, and Human Embryos: Implications for Stem Cell Research
Human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) are of scientific and medical interest because of their ability to develop into different tissue types and because of their ability to be propagated for many generations in laboratory culture. Grown in a laboratory, they might one day be used in the treatment of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They could provide bone cells for the treatment of osteoporosis, eye cells for macular degeneration, blood cells for cancer, insulinproducing cells for diabetes, heart muscle cells for heart disease, nerve cells for spinal cord injury. The potential for benefit to so many people is a strong argument for doing—and funding—embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. Yet ESC research is very controversial because the derivation of ES cells—at least at the present time—destroys the embryo. Thus, the morality of ESC research depends primarily on the morality of destroying human embryos, raising the question of the moral status of the human embryo.
[from The Oxford Handbook of Bioethics, edited by Bonnie Steinbock, Oxford University Press, 2007: 416-440.] This chapter begins with an introduction to the biology behind ESC research. Next I present briefly four views of moral status, based on four different criteria: biological humanity, personhood, possession of interests, and having a futurelike- ours (FLO). On two of these views (the person view and the interest view), embryos clearly lack moral status, but they most likely do not have moral status on the FLO account either. Only the biological humanity criterion combined with the view that life begins at conception results in the conclusion that very early extracorporeal embryos have full moral status, making ESC research that destroys embryos morally wrong. This explains why even some who are anti-abortion are not against ESC research: they do not view the very early, extracorporeal embryo as having the same moral status as the fetus. However, the morality of stem cell research is not completely determined by the question ofmoral status, for that issue, I argue, is not exhaustive of morality. Some entities, including human embryos, that do not have moral status nevertheless have moral value, and are entitled to respect. In the last section of the chapter, I give an account of what this respect requires and how it differs from Kantian respect. I conclude that the respect due to embryos is consistent with ESC research; that it is ethically acceptable to use either cloned embryos or spare IVF (in vitro fertilization) embryos; and that there are no ethical (as opposed to political) reasons that demand the development of alternative sources of human pluripotent stem cells.