June 1, 1999
Web posted at: 1:17 p.m. EDT (1717 GMT)
by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
University of Minnesota
Embryos are back in the news -- not because they were mixed up in a fertility
clinic or part of a contentious divorce settlement. Instead the news
about embryos is their promise in research that may lead to treatments for
everything from spinal cord injury to growing organs for transplant. But
that promise comes with a price -- these truly revolutionary medical
breakthroughs will require the destruction of human embryos. Is
this a price we should be willing to pay? Or are human embryos so special
that not even lifesaving medical benefits can offset the moral costs?
President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission is considering
this question, along with when, if ever, the government should sponsor
research in which human embryos will be destroyed during their use as the source of stem cells, the all-purpose cells that generate all the tissues and organs of the body. These questions promise to be not only ethically challenging but politically contentious. More than 70 members of Congress have vowed to fight the use of federal dollars for any embryo research.
Promising science, but no federal money
This is not the first time the use of tax dollars for embryo research has been
considered. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration banned
federal support for any research involving human embryos. Embryo
research in the United States is not illegal. It's only government funding that is not allowed. A government panel revisited the
policy in 1993, but the policy remains in place.
At stake are not only millions of federal research dollars, but the research
progress that comes from a government commitment.
What kind of life?
Standing in the way of research are questions about how we should use human
embryos. For those who view embryos as human lives deserving of the same
respect as a child or adult, research that kills embryos
is no more acceptable than would be research that killed adults.
For those who view embryos as a collection of cells akin to other human
tissue, research is acceptable and relatively uncontroversial.
For many people, however, intuition tells them that the status of human
embryos lies somewhere in between these two views. An embryo seems to
represent some kind of life, with a different potential than either the
sperm or egg from which it began only a few minutes before. And that
potential strikes many of us as deserving of respect in how the embryo is
used or treated. But how far should that respect go? Does it matter that
the proposed use offers great benefit? Does it matter where the embryos come from?
Does intention matter?
One potential supply of embryos for research is the many infertility clinics
across the United States and around the world. These clinics create embryos for use in in-vitro fertilization (IVF), many of which are never used. Such "spare"
embryos (estimated at more than 30,000 in the United States alone) are frozen in clinics, waiting to be implanted or disposed of.
Frozen embryos hold limited promise. The therapeutic "gold standard"
would be cells that are matched to their recipient. Rather than search for
matching embryos from the spare supply, it would be better to create embryos
using sperm and egg from related individuals. Or for the perfect match, an
embryo cloned from a patient's cells could yield implantable cells or solid
organs without risk of rejection.
For some, the ethics of the two cases are different. Using spare embryos
that were created with the intention of trying to have a child but have
become unnecessary for that purpose is somehow different from creating
embryos with the intention of extracting their stem cells. Whether
intention matters depends on your perspective. What is clear, however, is
that for the embryo, the outcome is the same.
A renewed debate on the use of human embryos in research has begun, driven
in large part by the clear benefits it seems to offer. In the early 1980s,
with no compelling case for research, it was easier to hold to principles
that rejected the use of embryos. But now the real promise of research is
challenging just how long those principles can stand in the face of
When, if ever, should the government sponsor research in which human embryos
will be used as the source of embryonic stem cells, the all-purpose cells
that generate all the tissues and organs of the body? Does it matter that the embryos are killed in the process? Do human embryos
deserve respect? Does it matter that the proposed use offers great benefit?
And does it matter where the embryos come from -- spare embryos from infertility clinics vs. embryos created for use in research?
Post your opinion here.
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.
"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.
Cell scientists hope to grow human spare parts
May 22, 1999
Presidential panel recommends limited embryo research
May 24, 1999
Stem cells promise big breakthroughs in treating disease
January 21, 1999
Genetic Information Research Institute
University of Rome: Bioethics Links
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