In his testimony before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission on stem cell research, Gilbert Meilaender urged the commission to be honest in its recommendations. If you endorse federal funding of stem cell research, he said, don’t do so by pretending that an unimplanted embryo is not an embryo. Don’t rely on the sophistry that talks of pre-embryos or pre-implantation embryos. Meilaender’s advice to the commission was wise and points to the difficulty of thinking clearly about the early embryo when considering the morality of the rapidly expanding possibilities of embryo research.
From preimplantation genetic diagnosis to stem cell research, scientific interventions in the reproductive process are forcing us to consider the nature of the early embryo and to answer the question: What is the early embryo? Unfortunately, when that question has been asked in debates about embryo research, the answers have typically been framed in terms reminiscent of debates about abortion, where the extreme positions dominate. Either the fetus is a person with a full set of rights, or it is nothing but a clump of cells with little or no moral claim on us at all. In short, the embryo is either a person or it is a kind of property. In my view, when applied to embryo research, neither extreme is plausible, and to advocate either is in fact morally irresponsible. If we are to think and speak truthfully about embryo research, we must repudiate the extremes and find a middle ground.
The Two Extremes
At one end of the spectrum of views on the status of the embryo is the view that, from conception, the embryo is fully a person with all the rights any person hasmost notably the right to life. Although magisterial teaching is not definitive on this point, the common perception and the public posture of Catholic teaching on the status of the embryo accords with this extreme view. We see this, for example, in the Instruction Donum Vitae, issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1987, where we read: The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from the same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.
The implication of this view of the fetus for Catholic teaching on abortion has long been clear: abortion is an abominable crime. In Donum Vitae, however, the C.D.F. draws out the implications of this view of the fetus for embryo research as well. No objective, the C.D.F. writes, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or fetuses, whether viable or not, either inside or outside the mother’s womb. Indeed, this has been the consistent response of the Catholic Church to every new development in reproductive technology that involves manipulating early embryos. Whether the issue is in vitro fertilization (I.V.F.) or embryo freezing, preimplantation genetic diagnosis or embryonic stem cell research, all are wrongindeed, the suggestion is that all are murderousbecause all typically involve the destruction of a living person.
At the other end of the spectrum stands the view that the early embryo is little more than cellular material, which demands little, if anything, of us morally. Although such a view of the fetus is rarely openly admitted, it is, I believe, more pervasive than many liberals would care to admit. Reductionistic views of the fetus are often found, for example, in the writings of those whose moral views are shaped by the law.
Consider the work of the well-known and influential legal scholar John Robertson. Although Robertson would probably dispute the characterization of his view as the extreme one that embryos are merely biological material, the way he frames his discussion of embryo research and the uses of the embryos that he sanctions indicates that his view is extreme. For Robertson, the real question in the debate about embryo research is whether the reproductive freedom that justifies assisted reproduction also justifies embryo research. Thus, in his book, Children of Choice, Robertson tells us that the fundamental question is this: Does procreative liberty entitle people to use their reproductive capacity to produce products or material to serve nonreproductive ends? Once the question is framed in this way, the only real reason to oppose embryo research is that it may involve a kind of symbolic harm to embryos, and this harm will almost always be outweighed by the potential benefits of embryo research. So where the Catholic Church opposes most non-therapeutic embryo research as profoundly wrong, Robertson endorses most forms of embryo research, because for him the loss of embryonic life is profoundly insignificant.
A Problem With the Extremes
What should we make of these extreme views? Although I cannot here develop the detailed arguments that would demonstrate the inadequacy of the two extreme positions, let me note a general problem for both views. I will then conclude with some comments about how we might make progress on this issue. The problem is that for neither position does the rhetoric match the reality of moral practice. If we took seriously, for example, the rhetoric of many pro-life advocates about embryo research, we ought to be in the streets fighting not merely to restrict such research but to shut down every I.V.F. clinic in the country. To describe I.V.F. and embryo research as murdering children, as former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer has done, is implicitly to issue a call for tireless social action to halt the carnage. Yet no such effort has been made to halt I.V.F., nor is there likely to be one; because most people recognize that however morally problematic destroying early embryos is, it is not murder.
At the same time, however, the view that the early embryo is merely cellular material is equally implausible. In recent years, Leon Kass has spoken of the wisdom of repugnance in relation to cloning, but over 20 years ago Kass demonstrated this point dramatically in considering the status of the early embryo. If you are inclined to think that the embryo is just so much biological stuff, he said, try to imagine your reaction to the prospect of eating the blastocyst as a kind of human caviar ( Toward a More Natural Science). The revulsion we feel at this prospect should be enough to show us that the embryo, even the earliest embryo, is not nothing. It is life, indeed human life, which deserves respect.
That the rhetoric of those who dismiss the embryo’s status as insignificant does not match their moral practice is suggested by the fact that even so staunch a supporter of procreative liberty as John Robertson does not believe that anything goes. Although, as we saw, Robertson talks about the creation of products or material, and although the chapter in which he uses such language is entitled Farming the Uterus, Robertson does not endorse all forms of embryo research. Indeed, even Robertson’s rhetoric is sometimes curbed, as when he talks about the embryo deserving respect.
An Alternative Approach
If it is a mistake to think of the early embryo either as a person or merely as a clump of cells, how should we think of the embryo? Let me take a suggestion from the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. In his book Life’s Dominion, Dworkin has argued that the problem with debates about abortion is that they have mostly been conducted as if the fundamental question is whether the fetus or embryo is a person. Framing the debate in this way inevitably leads to the sort of extreme positions that we have just noted. Instead of arguing about whether the fetus is a persona debate that is polarizing precisely because it invites a yes-or-no answerDworkin notes that the actions of both camps suggest common ground. The truth, Dworkin writes, is that liberal opinion, like the conservative view, presupposes that human life has intrinsic moral significance, so that it is in principle wrong to terminate a life even when no one’s interests are at stake.
My suggestion, then, is that we abandon the rhetoric that gives us the choice: either person or property. Instead, let us highlight the awe and reverence that nearly everyone feels at the miracle of life. If the embryo is not a person, it is certainly a developing form of human life and as such deserves respect. It seems to me that Leon Kass got it right all those years ago when he wrote: In the blastocyst, even in the zygote, we face a mysterious and awesome power, a power governed by an immanent plan that may produce an indisputably and fully human being. It deserves our respect not because it has rights or claims to sentience but because of what it is, now and prospectively.
Such a view of the embryo may not seem far removed from Catholic teaching; certainly it is closer to church teaching than the view of someone like John Robertson. Yet to speak of the sanctity of human life, even the absolute obligation of respecting the life of the early embryo, is importantly different from speaking of an absolute obligation not to conduct embryo research. Such a view will not sanction talk of categorical evil or of murder or of killing children when discussing embryo research. Instead, celebrating the wonder that is human life, from its earliest moments to its last, will lead to a moral presumption against embryo research.
Concretely, this means that the burden of proof rests on those who wish to conduct such research. It also means that we need to develop criteria by which we will determine if the burden has been met. Articulating and defending appropriate criteria is beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, let me in closing suggest three possible tests. Borrowing from just war theory, we might insist that there be a just cause for any proposed research involving the embryo and that such research be both proportionate and of last resort. If we were to develop these three conditions carefully, I suspect that we would find that many proposed forms of embryo research fail the test.
Consider, for example, the case of embryonic stem cell research in light of the condition of last resort. In a letter to the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Policy, the general secretary for the N.C.C.B./U.S.C.C., the then Msgr. Dennis Schnurr, pointed out on behalf of the American bishops that the promising work being done on adult stem cells eliminates the need for embryonic stem cell research. The existence of such startling new alternatives [as adult stem research], which may be much more amenable to clinical use and do not require any destruction of human life, he wrote, poses a significant new issue for ethics and public policy(www.nccbuscc.org/prolife/issues/bioethic/comments.htm). Although Bishop Schnurr does not name the issue as that of last resort, his point is surely that advocates of embryonic stem cell research have not demonstrated that embryo research is the only possible avenue to the many promised clinical benefits of stem cell research. Indeed, they have not even tried. Yet, if we are to respect the value of embryonic life, it is not unreasonable to insist that every alternative to embryo research be exhausted before we consider the possibility of destroying even one embryo.
I began my comments by noting Gilbert Meilaender’s insistence that we think and speak truthfully in discussing embryo research. Meilaender also says that if we proceed with stem cell research we should scrap any talk of respect for the embryo as inherently deceitful. About this last point I believe Meilaender is mistaken. Although respect for the early embryo will certainly restrict the circumstances under which embryo research may properly be conducted, and although it may preclude research in someperhaps in manycases, respecting the embryo is not inherently incompatible with embryo research. Unfortunately, as long as the debate about embryo research is framed in terms of the personhood/property dichotomy, we will make little progress in articulating precisely what respect for the embryo requires of us morally.