Last March I argued in these pages (Neither Person nor Property, 3/26/01) that approaching stem cell research in terms characteristic of the abortion debate has slowed progress in sorting out the complex moral issues raised by such research. The announcement on Nov. 25, 2001, that the first human embryo has now been cloned further demonstrates the folly of continuing to discuss cloning and stem cell research as if there were a clear and unambiguous answer to the question of the moral status of the early embryo, and as if that were the only relevant issue.
To see why this is the case, we need to be clear about just what the scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (ACT), a private company in Worcester, Mass., recently accomplished. Although most reports described the ACT work as involving cloning, in fact researchers used two very different techniques to create embryos from which stem cells might possibly be derived. One technique was similar to that used in Scotland in 1997 to produce Dolly, a sheep, and is appropriately described as an instance of cloning. But scientists at ACT also stimulated human eggs in a way known as parthenogenesis. That is, the eggs were coaxed into developing as if sperm had fertilized them, when in fact fertilization had not taken place. According to the paper published by the scientists at ACT, 22 eggs were activated parthenogenetically; six of these eggs were maintained in culture for seven days and developed in ways similar to normally fertilized embryos.
In one sense, the difference between the two techniques is unimportant. In neither case did the developing embryos reach a stage at which stem cells could be derived. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, as far as we know, the parthenogenetically activated eggs could not under any circumstances produce a viable pregnancy that would result in a child. This is important, because scientists who have supported stem cell research of this sort have wanted to draw a distinction between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. According to this line of argument, there is a fundamental difference between research aimed merely at deriving stem cells and research aimed at producing a child. Critics, who typically hold that the embryo is a person from the earliest moment, argue that both types of cloning violate the rights of the embryo.
The fact that parthenogenetically activated eggs cannot result in a live birth and thus are arguably not embryos at all suggests that the typical language in which cloning and stem cell research have been debatedthat is, the language of abortionmay simply be inadequate. Consider, for example, the traditional pro-life language that speaks of an embryo as a person from conception. What sense does this language make when we are dealing with an organism that can only loosely be described as an embryo and which was not conceived at all?
The other difficulty with discussing stem cell research in terms similar to the abortion debate is that it leads to concern for the status of the early embryo to the exclusion of other important moral issues. Indeed, one of the unfortunate aspects of most debates about abortion, focused as they are on embryo status, is their failure to attend to the broader social context in which the abortion debate takes place. Focusing primarily on the status of the embryo distracts us from considering how public policy on abortion generally affects women and children.
We face the same danger in debating stem cell research. Although the ACT announcement has already generated much hue and cry, very little of the protest has focused on the fact that the 71 eggs used in this research came from seven womennot from embryos, nor from parthenotes, but from adult women. And although the ACT paper describes these women as volunteers, Ron Green, a member of the ACT ethics advisory board, acknowledged on the PBS program The News Hour With Jim Lehrer that the egg donors were in fact paid.
Although we need not go so far as those who have called this reproductive prostitution, we need to think carefully about the implications of allowing, indeed encouraging, men and women to sell their gametes. It seems to me that one of the greatest dangers, not only with cloning and stem cell research but with all the techniques of reproductive medicine, is that these technologies are leading us to think of our bodies in market terms. Men sell sperm; women sell eggs; surrogates sell the use of their bodies for gestation.
Not surprisingly, there have been calls for Congress to ban all types of cloning, and in July the House passed just such a bill. Yet if Congress really wants to act decisively in response to the ACT announcement, it might do well to ban the sale of human gametes instead of banning therapeutic cloning or parthenogenesis. Such a bold act would force us to think of cloning and stem cell research as part and parcel of the world of reproductive medicine. Such an act might also propel us beyond the narrow confines of the abortion debate to a larger consideration of the implications of cloning and stem cell research for what it means to be human in the 21st century.