Intro to Embryos
At the moment of sperm-egg fusion, i.e., fertilization or conception, a new, genetically distinct, and whole living organism is produced. Because the product of reproduction between two members of a species is always a differentiated member of that same species, the product of human reproduction is always a unique and fully human organism. In its early stages of development, this human organism is called an “embryo.”
Embryos, like all other human beings, deserve to live free from aggressive violence. Unfortunately, however, society and law often assess human embryos as disposable: genetic material to be used for research purposes, or else mere tools for achieving pregnancy.
Assisted Reproduction and the Discarding of Human Embryos
In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is the most common form of assisted reproductive technology. IVF requires the collection of mature eggs, which are fertilized in a lab and then transferred to a uterus. Once they have been transferred to the uterus, they will ideally implant in the uterine lining and begin to develop.
During IVF, fertility doctors and specialists often inject several embryos into the uterus to increase the chances of at least one successful implantation. In the event that more than one embryo implants, fertility doctors and specialists often recommend “selective pregnancy reduction,” which entails the abortion of one or more of the embryos.
Although IVF does not always and necessarily end a human life through selective pregnancy reduction, the discarding of embryos is a regular part of the method. In order to ensure multiple attempts at pregnancy, fertility doctors and specialists will often use IVF to form multiple embryos; in some cases, as many as several dozen embryos are formed from the eggs of a single patient. The result of this practice is that there are often excess embryos once the procedure is complete. These embryos must either be frozen for later implantation, donated for medical research, or destroyed.
The selection of embryos for storage, donation, or destruction is not random. Embryos are tested for genetic abnormalities, and those that are deemed abnormal are either discarded or preserved in order to “model genetically inherited diseases” for the purpose of drug research and development. The use such selection criteria has further enabled ableism, racism, and sexism, as embryos can be rejected on the basis of their possible disabilities, ethnic features, or sex.
Meanwhile, unused embryos that are considered normal are subjected to indefinite storage in cryogenic freezers. Today, more than 400,000 embryos are frozen across the United States: unable to truly live and grow, but also unable to die.
In law, embryos are often described with language that reduces them to the status of physical property. Widely used terms such as “material,” “products of conception,” and “donation” imply that embryos are objects that can be owned by another human being, rather than individual human beings with their own rights, value, and inherent dignity. Custody disputes during divorce proceedings substantiate this fact; in the case of one couple who had stored their embryos for nine years before deciding to separate, the court ruled that the embryos were “material property” rather than human beings.
Human beings should never be considered property.
If assisted reproductive technologies are not operated in a manner that protects life, they inevitably objectify prenatal human beings. Embryonic human lives are evaluated only through the lens of their potential. Some are permitted to develop, while others are destroyed.
Human beings should never be considered property.
Embryos and Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are a basic building block of the human body. They possess two remarkable abilities: they can develop into specialized cells such as cardiomuscular, brain, or blood cells, and they can divide indefinitely. These features make them an indispensable ingredient in human cell repair and development.
Stem cells are often used for regenerative medicine. For example, they can produce new cells in order to replace diseased cells in people with spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. In some instances, stem cells can even be used to grow new tissue for use in transplants. Stem cells have also become an important part of medical research. They can be programmed to behave like the diseased cells that will be targeted by a specific drug, and then that drug can be tested on the stem cells. More generally, stem cells are useful in studying the development of cells, diseases, and, in the case of human embryonic stem cells, people.
Usable embryonic stem cells are acquired when the inner cell mass (ICM) is removed from an embryo after that embryo has developed to the blastocyst stage. The removal of the ICM allows for experimentation on the human embryonic stem cells, but it also kills the embryo.
The science of embryology indicates that the human embryo is, in fact, a genetically distinct and whole living organism, and not simply a “clump of cells.” Because embryonic stem cell research necessitates the intentional deaths of embryonic human beings, it cannot be conducted without aggressive violence.
Dr. James Thomson, the first scientist to extract stem cells from human embryos, has asserted that “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.” Dr. Thomson, who was himself uncomfortable with the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, worked to develop an ethical alternative. He hoped that the use of human embryos would become “a funny historical footnote” instead of a conventional research tool. At first, many scientists viewed the use of adult stem cells as an unrealistic option, both because the quantity of adult stem cells is limited and because adult stem cells lack the potential to develop as many types of specialized cells as embryonic stem cells have. But in 2006, Dr. Thomson’s team discovered a way to induce adult stem cells into pluripotency, which is the ability to develop the same types of cells as embryonic stem cells. The use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iSPCs) is functionally similar to the use of embryonic stem cells, but it lacks the ethical problems associated with embryonic stem cell research.
“Isn’t it great to start a field and then end it?” Dr. Thomson remarked in a 2007 interview with the New York Times. Although he considers the field “ended,” many people across the globe still see embryonic stem cells as ethically viable research subjects. And so embryonic human lives continue to be destroyed for the sake of medical research.
Adult and Placental Stem Cells
Adult stem cells have proven incredibly effective in research. In fact, they are appraised by some researchers as the “gold standard in regenerative medicine.” Research into the use of iSPCs is increasing at a much faster rate than research with embryonic stem cells, and some researchers expect this trend to continue. This is largely because iSPCs are easier to derive than embryonic stem cells. Collecting adult skin cells only requires a simple biopsy “about as painful as a blood draw,” and a large number of adult stem cells can be obtained from a comparatively small amount of tissue. As Dr. David Prentice writes, iSPCs “have distinct advantages compared with embryonic stem cells because they can be made from virtually any person or tissue, healthy or diseased, more cheaply and efficiently than embryonic stem cells.” Scientists can also generate iSPCs from the skin cells of the patient who needs them, increasing the likelihood that the iSPCs will be accepted by a patient’s immune system.
In addition, stem cells that are collected postnatally from the umbilical cord and placenta have shown great promise. Both are “low-cost” and “pain-free.” In fact, parents can choose to donate umbilical cord blood to a blood bank, and this blood is useful in transplants and in curing serious diseases.
Adult stem cells have helped treat neurological conditions like Multiple Sclerosis. Researchers have used iSPCs to study the Zika virus and lissencephaly. And stem cells procured from umbilical cord blood have exhibited the potential to promote cardiac regeneration and repair. No human life is lost or endangered in these processes. Even the purely utilitarian justifications for embryonic stem cell research have become few and far between.
Addressing Common Arguments
In this section, we address some common arguments about the ethics of embryo destruction.
“An embryo may be alive, but a human embryo is not a person.”
Some argue that “personhood” is what entitles a human life to protection from aggressive violence. Under certain definitions of personhood, embryos are not persons because they lack a certain level of development, sentience, or rationality.
At Rehumanize International, we advocate for human rights for all human beings. If a category of “living human beings who are not persons” could even exist, it would render personhood a meaningless concept and a useless attribute. At worst, the concept of personhood would become lethally discriminatory. Human rights are properly afforded to human beings who are at diverse stages of development, who vary in degree of sentience, and who experience many different conditions related to their mental faculties. Mental and physical independence are not regarded as appropriate standards for extending or refusing to extend human rights to human beings. Embryos ought not to be an exception to this rule. Embryonic and fetal human beings deserve the same rights as newborns, toddlers, adolescents, and adult human beings.
Wanted vs. unwanted embryos
Others argue that it is permissible to destroy human embryos in the event that they are unwanted. Proponents of this argument might agree that human embryo destruction in service of stem cell research or IVF can be immoral, but only if and when the embryos are wanted by an individual or group with a rightful “claim” to the embryos in question. This view confers upon others the power and capacity to own human beings. It is only the supposed owner of human embryos and the preferences of that owner that can determine whether human embryo destruction is moral or immoral. If a human embryo is unwanted, its destruction for the sake of medical research becomes not only acceptable, but even noble in its prevention of wastefulness.
This argument completely collapses in any other context. The right of an adult human being to live free of aggressive violence is not reliant on whether or not that adult human being is wanted or valued by another. Why would this line of reasoning apply to human embryos? Human rights are not premised upon wantedness; unwantedness cannot excuse aggressive violence against another human being.
“Embryonic lives are not grievable.”
Some people point to the high rate of miscarriages to argue that embryonic human lives cannot be very valuable. After all, if these human lives matter and so many are lost every day, why do we not observe more grief over them?
This argument entirely ignores the lived experiences of the people who do grieve the loss of human embryos. Disregarding these experiences reinforces the stigma that already surrounds grief related to miscarriage. Grief over human embryo loss affects those who conceive naturally and those who use assisted reproduction technologies and, contrary to popular belief, the length of the pregnancy does not appear to be connected to the intensity or duration of the grief. Those who decide to destroy embryos that they no longer want or cannot afford to store are often surprised by the mourning that follows such a decision. Moreover, in cases wherein the malfunction of laboratory freezers has resulted in the loss of thousands of embryos, people have testified to the devastation and families have come together in grief to hold services and construct memorials for the lives that were lost.
“The thousands of lives saved through new treatments developed via embryonic stem cell research are worth the destruction of embryos.”
Some argue that the potentially lifesaving cures discovered through embryonic stem cell research outweigh the moral implications of embryonic stem cell research, in some cases going as far as to contend that refusing to conduct embryonic stem cell research is the moral equivalent of killing the people who stand to benefit from such medical research.
These claims are based on a flawed utilitarian calculus that does not recognize the inherent value and dignity of each and every human life. It is imperative that medical ethics reject this utilitarianism: an ethical framework that treats individual human lives as disposable in the wider pursuit of collective societal aims (such as scientific advancement), and which has yielded the deplorable human experimentation that we have witnessed throughout history. Those who maintain that sparing embryonic life is a manifestation of violence against others demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of what, exactly, constitutes aggressive violence. Respecting and protecting the value and dignity of vulnerable human beings and refusing to view them only as a means to an end is, in fact, the antithesis of aggressive violence.
Additionally, embryonic stem cell research has not offered the groundbreaking advantages that were previously expected. When embryonic stem cell research began, it seemed at first like a research technique with limitless potential. Scientists and journalists gushed over the possibilities for curing disease; ethical objections were carelessly dismissed as vexing obstacles to medical progress.
But stem cell therapy has progressed much more slowly than initially predicted, and early excitement engendered exaggerated estimations in public discourse about the rate at which embryonic stem cell research has advanced. For example, Dr. Charles Mirray, co-director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington, insisted that “the only problem is the evil physicians and government, who want to separate people from lifesaving therapies.” This statement and numerous statements like it have created assumptions and expectations that embryonic stem cell research will lead to unprecedented cures. After fifteen years of evidence to the contrary, it is past time to stop destroying human lives for the sake of scientific research and medical experimentation.