Monday, June 13, 2005

Ethics in Limbo

Fifty Republicans in the House last month defied their president’s veto threat to pass a bill (H.R. 810) that would lift current funding restrictions on destroying human embryos. Lawmakers want researchers to gain access to a scientific treasure trove of more than 400,000 frozen embryos created by in-vitro fertilization and currently in cold storage at fertility clinics around the country.

One Republican renegade is self-described pro-lifer Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., whose mother-in-law had died the night before of Alzheimer's. "I must follow my heart on this and cast a vote in favor," Emerson said.

When it comes to turning human flesh into raw material for medical experimentation, more and more people are willing to follow their hearts. After the president announced his compromise position on funding research to then-existing embryonic stem-cell lines, in 2002 the American people narrowly supported such research by 43 percent to 38 percent, according to the Pew Forum. Today, the margin has swelled to 56 percent in favor to 32 percent opposed.

Apparently the relentless appeals to people’s emotions by scientists eager to find hypothetical but unproven cures (and abundant research dollars) are working. But despite all the hype, it’s a fact that embryonic stem cells have treated no diseases.

Compare this hype to real scientific progress via stem cells taken from umbilical cords, which do not involve the destruction of developing human life. To date, stem cells taken from cord blood have treated 57 different diseases.

But more and more people don’t want to be saddled with ethical limits or confused with inconvenient scientific facts. In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times glossed over these facts by saying, “It’s not a choice between a human life and an embryo’s life. It’s a choice between real human lives and a symbolic statement about the value of an embryo.”

Pro-experimentation advocates are willing to help the human being they can see (a mother-in-law, for example) by killing the human being they can't see (the embryo). Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., closed the debate on H.R. 810 by saying, "If given a choice, err on the side of opportunity."

Remember when (not so long ago) people used to talk about erring on the side of life?

There’s not much chance of that these days. Even President Bush’s 2001 compromise policy allows researchers to destroy human embryos for their stem cells. Once he made that decision–in a well-meaning but muddled attempt to protect taxpayers from having to pay, as in abortion, for a morally objectionable act–the question shifted from whether we should kill embryos to how many.

And with those 400,000 human embryos “going to waste” in cryogenic limbo, it was only a matter of time until the answer to the how many question became quite high indeed. As impossible as this sounds, we urgently need to revisit the whether question.

Despite the immeasurable joy and the thousands of children the technique has helped bring into the world, in-vitro fertilization is fraught with moral problems. Many of the embryos created in the proverbial “test tube” are destroyed once doctors discover abnormalities. Many of the embryos die on their own. Because of the prohibitive costs, physicians in this line of work also routinely counsel infertile couples to allow the creation of “extra” embryos–to be frozen, used later, or (if unneeded) discarded.

Unfortunately, sometimes pro-life Christians, desperate to have biological children, participate in in-vitro techniques, turning blind eyes to the ethical dilemmas. Others have sought to redeem the practice by encouraging the parents of frozen embryos to donate them to infertile couples for adoption.

In fact, in his May 24 remarks on bioethics, President Bush highlighted 21 children between the ages of three months and seven years who were formerly frozen embryos. “Rather than discard these embryos,” President Bush said, “or turn them over for research that destroys them, these families have chosen a life-affirming alternative.”

Such efforts by the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, a Fullerton, California-based nonprofit agency, represent a small but nonetheless encouraging response to our society’s potentially fatal bout of emotional utilitarianism.

These programs are valuable not just for the human lives they save but for the images they provide in a shallow, media-saturated culture. If the American people will no longer respond to plain scientific facts and detailed ethical reasoning, then pro-lifers will have to change tactics and give them faces, stories, and sound bites.

In the shadow of those 400,000 souls on ice, the alternative is chilling.


Blogger kaligula said...

The LA Times was right.

Your intepretation of Christian doctrine of the value of an embryo does not define the absolute ethical position. That fact is, the Bible doesn't even address the issue, obviously being an ancient document. It's a matter of interpretation.

You think in-vitro fertilization is wrong. Fine. Most Americans do not. I fail to see how couples who take advantage of this medical technology threatens your religious freedom.

And, to be frank, that most americans don't subscribe to your particular interpretation does not indicate that they are part of a shallow, media-saturated culture.

Rather, the chilling alternative is the Church dictating how we can apply medicine, technology, and science to our daily lives.

No thanks.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

Glad you're reading my site so regularly. I'm not talking about the Bible; you are. I'm talking about science, and the scientific fact is human embryos are human (as if this needs saying) and thus worthy of protection. IVF is not wrong if done ethically (i.e., by not killing developing human life). Don't you think ethics should inform science, or does anything go in your world?

12:36 PM  
Blogger kaligula said...

There is an exhaustive discipline of bioethics which guides the bio-technological and medical sciences.

Frozen embryos are not "developing human life," in the active sense. They are fertilized ova which have been frozen and are stored, and which require implantation into the uterus in order to potentially develop into a fetus.

Most national review boards fail to ethically define these embryos as "persons" with intrinsic rights.

You disagree with that ethical assessment, which is your right, but you are basing your assessment on a moral judgment guided by your religious faith.

With your educational qualifications, I think you would acknowledge that your argument that a human embryo is human is merely a tautological one. Of course, a human embryo is a "human" embryo by definition. This is mere scientific triviality. The question is whether fertilized ova should be constitutionally protected as "persons" with intrinsic rights. This is more of a moral judgement than an ethical judgement, much less being a scientific one.

As you yourself stated, IVF "is fraught with moral problems.

Ethical judgements necessarily always involve some utilitarian calculus in reaching a conclusion. Purely moral judgements make conclusions from "first precepts" without regard to any utilitarian calculation.

To quote your entire statement:

"Despite the immeasurable joy and the thousands of children the technique has helped bring into the world, in-vitro fertilization is fraught with moral problems."

People who do not share your moral judgement that fertilized ova are "persons" will not be ethically challenged by IVF.

Your last statement:

"If the American people will no longer respond to plain scientific facts and detailed ethical reasoning, then pro-lifers will have to change tactics and give them faces, stories, and sound bites."

Mixing Pro-Life politics with restricting IVF is a real loser issue, Stan.

Even as a ibertarian, I agree that late-term abortions, and denying parental notification for minors who seek abortion is wrong. And most Americans are in agreement with that.

So not anything goes in my world.

And if you want to identify the Pro-Life movement with restricting IVF, then good luck.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

Now that I know you have some limits to your libertarianism, we can discuss what the proper moral, ethical, and scientific limits to IVF and other bioethics questions should be. On a very basic scientific level, fertilized eggs (if left to develop naturally) will become like you and me, with awesome opportunities to bless and to curse, to explore God's world, to find cures for cancer, to feed the hungry, to provide a shoulder to cry on, to enjoy a sunset.

A basic philosophical issue, to supplement the scientific one, is whether we see that developing human life as worthy of protection, or as mere raw material that the rest of us can use for our our own benefit. Let me ask you: If you were the fertilized egg (as we all were at one point in our development), would you want someone to destroy you for science, or would you want to be free to develop your potentialities into the person you have become--a person with a sharp mind, a libertarian bent, someone who likes to find the truth of a matter and who likes to enjoy the good things of life?

Doesn't the question answer itself? Then what right do we have to take that right from others?

12:47 PM  
Blogger kaligula said...

The fertilized ova only have the potential to develop if they are placed in the uterus.

Of course, with IVF cases, even that is hardly a sufficient conditition to ensure
that any given implanted embryo will even develop to full term.

That's the very reason the treatment involves generating multiple embryos in the first place, usually selecting the best ones for implantation.

Let's face it,in terms of your moral philosophy, IVF treatment, no matter how restrictively practiced,cannot be justified.

Therefore, if Momma kaligula had a fertility problem, there would be no "little, kaligula embryos" to ponder your moral dilemma of being destroyed for the sake of science.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

Saying, as you do, "The fertilized ova only have the potential to develop if they are placed in the uterus," is of course true--much like saying, "A boy only has the potential to develop if you give him air, food, and water." Those are some of the necessary conditions for life to continue, and are what that life is designed for. Depriving a living being of these necessary things is equivalent to choosing to kill it.

Killing some embryos so that others might live may work very well scientifically, but it is still killing. Choosing not to avail oneself of these morally questionable treatments is not the same as killing, but simply the painful choice to forgo having a child in this way. There's a big difference.

Trust me, I believe in science. Science has done a lot to enhance my physical well being. If I felt IVF could be done without the killing, I would be all in favor.

11:43 AM  
Blogger kaligula said...

I understand your moral position on the matter, but IVF treatments are used in the first place because of recurrent pregnancy loss. 50% of women over the age of 40 are likely to have a pregnancy end in miscarriage, which is "spontaneous abortion."

Each year, over 1 million pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, which rivals the number of induced, voluntary abortions.

In the context of such statistics, a clear ethical case can be made for medical treatments such as IVF, despite any moral misgivings about unused fertilized ova.

Now, i can only imagine the level of disagreement we would have over the issue therapeutic cloning, or "somatic cell nuclear transfer" as a related issue in your original article.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

I think we're going to have to agree to disagree, K. You make an interesting point, one I have wrestled with and don't have a fully satisfying answer for. However, I will say there is a clear ethical difference between seeing human life die of natural causes and actually killing that life.

6:24 AM  
Blogger Bob said...


Just one quick note about the 400,000 figure. It comes from a report from the Rand Corporation ( which is now two years old, and doesn't take into account any embryos frozen since 2003.

Only about 11,000 of the frozen embryos from 2003 have been designated for research (the rest-about 88%, were being stored for future IVF attempts.) With attrition for thawing (as high as 50%) and the fairly low rate of success from frozen embyros (about 25%), and then the difficulties in starting stem cell lines, RAND estimated that less that 275 new lines could be started from the embryos available for research.

If all the remain embryos were thawed and implanted, the best guess would be that 25,000 children might be born. No one knows for sure, because no one knows how long those embryos have been in storage

4:48 PM  
Blogger Faithful to Christ my Savior said...

There is a huge concern to preserve fertilized eagle eggs and other kinds of animal (of which not all is in threat of exstinction) eggs and much so that one can be imprisoned for even accidentally destroying one of them, a.k.a. this animal life is protected by Federal Law. If an eagle's egg deserves life preservation and protection then one can bet a human embryo, which is also ALIVE, sure deserves AT LEAST the same. Why can't some people rub a few brains cells together to understand that? Thank you, Mr. Guthrie, for you article.

4:31 PM  

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