Respecting What We Destroy: Reflections on Human Embryo Research

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Reflections on Human Embryo Research

The thought that human embryos could command moral respect yet also be acceptably used in medical research has struck some as incoherent. Given some assumptions about why they deserve respect, however, the thought is not objectionable, indeed not even unusual.

How can one have moral respect for something that one intentionally destroys? This perplexing question is pointedly raised by several commentators on the ethics of human stem cell and embryo research when they claim that extracorporeal embryos at one and the same time merit "profound respect,"[1] "respect ... for [their] special character,[2] or "special respect,"[3] and yet remain suitable for use in scientific research that results in their destruction. Daniel Callahan, among others, has puzzled about how the extracorporeal embryo can be both "entitled to profound respect" and also sacrificed "in deference to the requirements of research."[4] The puzzle for Callahan, and for us here, is how we can, without a tragic disingenuousness, accede to "the killing of something for which [we] claim to have a profound respect" (p. 39). The puzzle raises two questions: Does not having an attitude of respect for something rule out its ultimate destruction? Second, even if this is not so, is not the research use and destruction of embryos "more honestly done by simply stripping [these] embryos of any value at all?" (p. 40)

Our answer to both questions is no. What respect requires can be an alternative both to a prohibition on destruction and to a moral license to kill. We will argue that a genuine moral respect for embryos can be joined--without incongruity but not without careful attention to how that respect is displayed--with their use and destruction in legitimate research. This is of course not meant to be a description of the moral attitudes that people typically have about embryos. Our conclusion is rather an evocation of a moral ideal especially worthy of recognition at a time when research using human embryos is likely to escalate.[5]

Before taking up the moral compatibility between respecting something and destroying it, we first provide a brief account of moral status in general and then address the particular moral status of embryos. The moral status of an entity must be clarified before the moral permissibility of its intentional destruction can be ascertained. It is to the question of moral status, then, that we turn first.

Moral Status and Respect

There are nonmoral uses of the idea of respect--like the respect one might have for a heavyweight champion's left hook or a scholar's opinion. An agent evinces moral respect, however, when she sincerely considers and actually treats an entity as worthy of some degree of deference, reverence, or regard. Plainly, this kind of respect is dependent on a reckoning of the entity's moral status. An entity toward which moral agents have direct obligations, or whose needs, interests, or well-being require protection, for example, will also command respect.[6] Moral agents clearly have a rather high moral status, and they correspondingly deserve very significant moral respect.

However, moral respect should not be collapsed into an account of respect for moral agents or their characteristics. Humans who are not agents or not yet agents, sentient creatures, other living things, species, and biotic communities are all sometimes said to have moral status and deserve moral respect. Of course, if such widely varying kinds of entities are accorded moral status, the notions of moral status and respect must admit of degrees.[7] Plainly, too, people differ in what they assign status and accord respect to. Nonetheless, any attribution of moral status, however weak, must be taken seriously by others.

We employ the method of ascertaining moral status recently elaborated by Mary Anne Warren, who has argued convincingly that no one criterion can determine moral status. …