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Solving the Stem Cell and Cloning Puzzle

In March 2006, a 21-year-old Cleveland man, Christopher Challancin, was driving home from a party with his 17-year-old girlfriend, Jessica Karos. She was four months pregnant. They began to argue about her ability to care for their child. Challancin, who had been drinking, became angry and began to weave at high speed through traffic. He lost control of the car and crashed. Karos was left paralysed from the chest down, and the baby died. Challancin was unhurt. Because he killed the baby, he was charged with homicide, as well as assault for “ruining her life,” as her father put it.

In January 2005, Alison Miller and Todd Parrish sued their fertility clinic, the Centre for Human Reproduction in Chicago. They had been having IVF treatment in 2002 and had stored nine embryos, one of which was “mistakenly” discarded. The clinic apologized and offered the couple a free cycle of IVF, but they sued the clinic for the “wrongful death” of their embryo.

Every year in Australia, about 100,000 fetuses are aborted. Nearly all of these are normal and healthy. No one is charged over these deaths. Thousands of embryos are destroyed in Australia each year. In fact, the law on IVF in Victoria requires their destruction after five years.

How can killing a fetus at once be homicide and yet no crime at all? How can the destruction of embryos at the same time be required by law and widely practiced but also, in some places, be the crime of wrongful death and a moral abomination? How can the one act – killing early human life – be both right and wrong? We have polar opposite attitudes, moral norms, and laws relating to embryos and fetuses. How can this conflict be reconciled?

One solution has been proposed by the Christian Right, the Catholic Church, “pro-life movements,” and some politicians. That solution is to give the embryo, from the moment of creation, a full right to life – to treat it like a child. In Australia, where the debate over stem cell research has recently become more heated, this proposal has been championed by thehealth minister Tony Abbott. Australia, like the United States, has very conservative laws on cloning and stem cell research, only allowing research on spare embryos formed before 2002. However, Australian politicians will be given a free conscience vote on reforming its laws some time late in 2006.

The strategy of giving the embryo a full right to life certainly resolves the conflict in our practices in relation to early human life. Killing embryos and fetuses would then be alwayswrong. But it also leaves us in a world with no abortion (even after rape or when the pregnant woman’s life is at stake), no effective contraception (the commonest effective methods – IUD and the pill – destroy early human life), no IVF, and ultimately no effective control over our own reproduction. Many conservative religious and political leaders joyfully embrace these consequences. They seek to impose their values on the rest of society because they believe that those values are right. This is just the sort of disrespect of liberty and intolerance that we find so contemptible in countries like Iran.

Tony Abbott recently wrote of the importance of Christian values in public life and lauded Australian Christian politicians. However, the kinds of Christian values which claim that the embryo and fetus have the same right to life as other humans account poorly for the way any modern liberal society actually functions, and they conflict with widely accepted and valued practices, regardless of whether a few good men disagree. Good men can be wrong.

There are other values, which can be embraced by Christians and non-Christians, which can account for our moral norms, attitudes, practices, and law, and the tension in them. There is a value to controlling our reproduction, to deciding how many children we will have and when to have them. “Go forth and multiply” – but there is a limit. Early human life has value when it is a part of plan, sometimes a well-formed plan in the context of a blissful loving marriage, but sometimes an inarticulate intention in a chaotic or immature relationship, to have a child. The moral reason Challancin was wrong to act in a way which killed his girlfriend’s baby was because she wanted to have that baby. Challancin is more like a drunk driver who recklessly kills an innocent child than a doctor who performs an abortion at a woman’s request. It should have been Miller and Parrish who decided the fate of their embryos, not the Chicago clinic. No matter what the law, the destruction of the embryos is a moral crime when parents want them. If they do not want them, there would be nothing wrong and, in some cases, the law would require that they be destroyed.

Here is the solution to the puzzle of our conflicting attitudes towards the embryo: embryos have special moral value when they are part of a plan to have a child, or at least desired by the people who made them. Embryos do not have special moral value when they are not desired by the people who formed them. One of the great ethical advances has been to give people the freedom to control their own reproduction – to decide how many children to have and when to have children. This is reproductive liberty. Women no longer must have the 10 or 20 children they could have during their reproductive lives.

How does this relate to stem cell research? Creating embryos for research, either by cloning or by IVF, does not destroy any embryo or fetus that is a part of anyone’s plan to have a family. It does not destroy anything of special moral value. It is morally equivalent to engaging in sex using contraception. Both create and destroy embryos, the difference being that research is to save lives, but sex is just for fun.

Opposing cloning and embryonic stem cell research represents a backdoor assault on our reproductive liberty – the freedom to control our reproduction. It holds the embryo as sacred and commits us to a world of vast overpopulation and oppressive family size.

Valid scientific research on embryos has the potential to develop new treatments for common human diseases. It does not deny any person or couple a child of their own who wanted one. It does not deny the world of a child that would otherwise have existed. We are not morally obliged to have as many children as we could have. And the world could not cope with all the children we could have.

There is nothing wrong with creating embryos, by IVF or cloning, for the purposes of scientific research. Embryos and fetuses do have a special moral value – when they are a part of project to bring a new child into the world. But when a person does not want to bring a new child into the world, there is nothing wrong with that person creating an embryo for potentially life-saving research.

The two missing pieces in the puzzle of early life are the value of reproductive liberty and the conditional moral status of early life. Once we fit these pieces, rational opposition to creating embryos for research melts away. We solved the puzzle of embryo research when we gave people the freedom to control their reproduction by destroying embryos that could have created a new person.

– Julian Savulescu

A short version of this piece was commissioned by The Age newspaper in Australia.

Published on: September 21, 2006
Published in: Human Reproduction, Science and Society, Stem Cells

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