Moral Pluralism and the Debate over Research on Embryonic Tissue

By Lustig, Andrew | The Hastings Center Report, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Moral Pluralism and the Debate over Research on Embryonic Tissue


Lustig, Andrew, The Hastings Center Report


Debates about embryo and human embryonic stem (ES) cell research reveal deeply divided judgments about the status of early forms of human life and are often occasions for polemics rather than respectful dialogue. It is a merit of these two books that they engage their subjects thoughtfully and earnestly, even though they take very different approaches. Green describes his work as a "philosophical memoir" (p. xv) of his experiences as a member of the 1994 NIH Human Embryo Research Panel. His reflections on that tenure, as well as chapters about human cloning and ES cells, provide a highly engaging critique of what he deems an inappropriate politicization of such debates, especially by conservative religious groups (thus the "vortex" of his title). The Holland-Lebacqz-Zoloth edited volume, with its twenty chapters from nineteen contributors, provides a broader overview, with four sections devoted, respectively, to the state of current ES cell research, ethical issues, religious perspectives, and policy concerns.

These books are especially interesting for the issues of policy ethics that they engage. First is the central, apparently unresolvable issue of the moral status of the human embryo, which raises questions about which perspectives should govern appropriate pluralistic policy. Second, how are we to assess claims about possible scientific breakthroughs, and how should we weigh them against other less quantifiable values and perspectives? Finally, what are the implications of so-called "public reason" and "deliberative democracy" for embryo and ES cell debates? More generally, how should we craft genuinely respectful public policy on controversial matters that involve collective funding? Too often, emphases on individual liberty and social utility tend to dismiss other concerns as merely "symbolic," parochial, or epistemologically privileged. Yet all forms of public discourse, including appeals to individual rights and preference satisfaction, are deeply symbolic in their own right as particular (and often quite minimalistic) depictions of human flourishing.

These questions may be less intriguing to many observers than musings about tomorrow's scientific miracles. Yet issues of policy ethics are of fundamental importance because the framework for public dialogue and policy choice we establish now may well set the tone and substance of public debates about reproductive and regenerative medicine for the foreseeable future. Consider how an appropriate pluralism might address the core question in dispute--the moral status of embryonic human life. Green and several contributors to the stem cell volume (Elliot Dorff, Laurie Zoloth, Margaret Farley, Erik Parens, Gilbert Meilaender, and Ted Peters) explore this issue in detail. In comparing and contrasting their perspectives, two questions arise. What interpretive paradigms best frame their differing views and, more pointedly, what, if anything, does "respect" for human embryos entail? For a significant minority, including traditional Roman Catholics and others, respect for embryos follows from seeing them as early and quite vulnerable forms of human life and therefore as human subjects worthy of protection. It is not entirely clear what that perspective suggests for the fate of "spare" embryos, but one can surmise either of two recommendations: that such embryos should be "adopted" by other infertile couples or, in ways analogous to the ethics of end of life care, that such subjects be "allowed to die" (that is, that "life-suspending" treatment be discontinued) but not killed for non-therapeutic reasons.

For others who see embryos as very early forms of human pre-personal or even pre-individuated life, the language of respect is more difficult to interpret. It clearly cannot mean that embryos are deemed human subjects. Instead, it may suggest parallels with the paradigm of tissue donation, wherein donor consent is a central requirement. …

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