Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

THE STEM CELL DEBATE: Why Both Sides Of The Controversy Are At Odds With The "Pro-Life Position


Wednesday, Aug. 01, 2001

On July 17, the House of Representatives held hearings at which members of the public weighed in on both sides of the stem cell research debate. Should the federal government continue to withhold funding from potentially lifesaving research that utilizes discarded human embryos? Those who addressed the House subcommittee included parents of small children whose very existence might now, or could someday, be attributed to the federal government's approach to resolving this question.

One father of twins, for example, held up his two boys while his wife displayed a picture of the donated frozen embryos that later grew into the twins. He asked the people assembled, "Which of my children would you kill?"

But another set of twins, twelve years old and devout Roman Catholics, took the opposite position. One of them has struggled with diabetes since she was four years old, and her healthy sister spoke of watching her suffer all of these years. Treating her condition might only be possible with research using embryonic cells.

Though poignant, the arguments pressed by all of the parents and children are at war with the position that the embryos of which they speak really are persons. As I have argued in an earlier column, the answer to the question of whether embryos are persons does not emerge from debates about abortion. It does, however, squarely present itself in stem cell discussions. The answer one gives to this question, moreover, has important policy implications beyond the current issue of stem cell research.

Personhood and the Pro-Stem Cell Research Position

If we assume that personhood begins at conception, then there are difficulties with both sets of arguments before Congress. Begin with those who support embryonic experimentation. No matter how worthy a goal it is to save lives and combat suffering, our society has unequivocally rejected the morality of killing some persons in order to help others.

We cannot, for example, kill one man to provide organs that would save ten. Indeed, we cannot even take organs from a death row inmate who, like the frozen embryo, will eventually be destroyed anyway.

Consider, as well, the difference between the context of abortion, where the putative person is within a woman's body, and that of the frozen embryo. When an unwanted embryo is within a pregnant woman, its survival is possible only by forcing a tremendous physical intrusion upon the unwilling woman.

In contrast, the frozen embryo's continued existence does not injure anyone's bodily integrity. If one takes the position that the frozen embryo is a person, one should therefore believe that research using the embryo is immoral. Granted, some other person might benefit from the use of that embryo. But that does not justify the research — any more than it would justify taking one man's heart or lungs to save the life of his next-door neighbor.

Personhood and the Anti-Stem Cell Research Position

Consider now the father whose twins originated as donated embryos. His argument against "killing" his children might at first glance seem true to the pro-life position — or perhaps even to be an extension of that position. He views the frozen embryos that gave rise to his children as full persons and argues that none of them should be subject to sacrifice to cure another's illness.

But if the father truly views embryos as persons, then he has engaged in conduct that is profoundly immoral under his own belief system. That is because frozen embryos

are themselves the products of a process that intentionally creates numerous embryos headed for "slaughter." The process is in vitro fertilization (IVF).

To prepare for IVF, a doctor induces superovulation in a woman, a condition in which she matures many eggs in one month, instead of the usual single egg. The doctor then extracts and fertilizes the resulting eggs with either a partner's or donor's sperm, thus creating as many zygotes as possible. The cells then divide for a few days prior to embryo transfer.

Only a few of the resulting embryos, however, will now be implanted in the woman whose eggs were fertilized. This is how the frozen embryo — the embryo which is not implanted a few days after fertilization — comes into being. In the future, it either will be implanted, discarded, or used for research.

A person who implants a donated frozen embryo therefore uses and subsidizes an industry that intentionally creates many more embryos than will be allowed to survive. If that person believes embryos are persons, then he must think of himself as patronizing an industry that creates people only (in many cases) to kill them.

The father of the twins might respond that he is simply "rescuing" embryos who have already been created and who would, absent his intervention, perish. But in order to use a frozen embryo, as he and his wife did, a couple must work with, and pay the fees of, the very same fertility doctors who create sets of embryos, many slated for destruction, every day.

Moreover, those who have testified against government funding for stem cell research using frozen embryos clearly believe that paying money constitutes enough involvement to taint the payor. By the same logic, the opponents of such research should also refuse to fund IVF as it is currently practiced. That means, among other things, not using fertility doctors themselves.

The Consequences for IVF of the Belief that Embryos Are Persons

If embryos are persons, then IVF medicine must change dramatically. People who undergo the procedure should not, for example, have the option of deciding not to donate extra embryos to other couples. They would have to choose between implanting them, now or at some future time, or donating them to others. The government, in turn, should pay the cost of preserving abandoned embryos, just as it now covers emergency neo-natal intensive care for infants without caretakers. Until such changes are implemented, people truly opposed to killing embryos should refuse to subsidize fertility clinics.

Yet such reforms might strike many consumers of IVF treatments as undesirable. Many people who create embryos for implantation are unwilling to see those embryos implanted in other people. Like some men who prefer not to donate to a sperm bank, many couples would rather not reproduce at all than reproduce without having any subsequent relationship with resulting offspring.

Those who would oppose compelled donation do not, in other words, really think of embryos as children to be kept or given up for adoption. They think of them instead as special property, the destiny of which should be in their hands unless and until the property actually becomes persons.

For those who embrace the view that embryos are persons, this common intuition about the status of embryos presents a challenge. They may describe stem cell research as homicide, but they must recognize that doing so entails a description of current fertility treatments as homicide as well, albeit homicide that is intimately linked to creating other lives. They would have to insist that all unutilized frozen embryos be preserved and made available to interested couples, regardless of the original couples' respective wishes. After all, one could not give up a child after birth but insist that the child be discarded or used for research.

Perhaps more realistically, the pro-life opponent of stem cell research might simply oppose IVF altogether, a position taken by the Vatican. The person who believes that life begins at conception but supports stem cell research has a different problem on her hands. She, by accepting both of these arguments, implicitly accepts the notion that full persons may be sacrificed to save other full persons' lives. Would she feel the same way about unwanted persons who had already been born?

The All-Or-Nothing Stem Cell Research Debate

Perhaps the lesson in all of this is that the stem cell research debate is philosophically an all-or-nothing proposition. Only those who believe that an embryo is not a person and is not entitled to the rights of persons can legitimately promote the undeniable benefits available if we use embryonic stem cells either to research and cure disease or to provide infertile couples with children. And only those deeply opposed to the current practice of IVF can take a principled position against stem cell research as the killing of a human being.

This might mean that abortion opponents who support stem cell research do not honestly believe that embryos are persons. Or, more cynically, perhaps some of them do believe it, but only so long as it means forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy. What it certainly means is that those who adopt frozen embryos lack moral standing to accuse researchers of murder.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard