Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Taking Proscriptions Seriously

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Taking Proscriptions Seriously

Article excerpt

The history of the ethics of medical research can be described as a tug between the consequentialist considerations that drive research and deontological considerations that may restrict it. As long as the research is performed on people, there is little debate--at least today--about whether there are deontological considerations and how, in the abstract, they stack up against each other, even if debate persists over what must actually be done to honor them. But if the research is on embryos (or human tissue, or nonhuman animals), it is also unclear whether deontological considerations arise and, if they do, how they fare against the prospect that medical benefits might derive from the research. And if we conclude that the research may proceed, and the embryos are destroyed in the course of it, then how can we also claim to be taking any deontological restrictions seriously?

Two articles in this issue of the Report explore this territory, but mark out very different paths within it. In the lead article, Gilbert Meilaender explores the idea of a moral ban. Though his topic is NBAC's refusal to ban research on human embryos, he launches his discussion by considering the ethics of warfare and the ban on genocide. Michael Walzer's writings provide a touchstone. If a ban is to be a ban, Meilaender argues, it must stand up well against consequentialist arguments for putting the gains and the losses on a scale. Meilaender faults NBAC for adopting a collapsible ban: it declares (as he sees it) that embryos merit our special respect but that our respect must increasingly give way as the benefits of research escalate. Such thinking is consequentialist, he argues, not a ban at all, and undermines the idea that there is truly any special respect owed the embryo. …

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