Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Respect for Human Life: Philosophical and Legal Reflections

Article excerpt


Less than twenty-five years ago, bioethics was considered a somewhat arcane discipline. In 1978, the late Paul Ramsey, a noted Protestant ethicist, published a book entitled Ethics at the Edges of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections. (1) In this book, Ramsey considered abortion, euthanasia, defective infants, neonatal infanticide, and the refusal of life-prolonging technology. (2) Although the book was well received in some specialized academic circles, it did not have much impact on the media or on the popular culture of that time. One possible reason for this is that many people would just as soon avoid discussing issues that concern life and death. (3)

Twenty-two years have passed since the publication of Ramsey's book, and many of the issues that were discussed still linger, yet these issues do not generally make headlines nor does the media cover them extensively. In this new millennium, we think of "the edges of life" in terms of issues like cloning and stem cell research, genetic therapy and counseling, reproductive technologies, organ and tissue transplantation, heart-lung machines, and artificial hearts. These are the issues that have come to the forefront because of the incredible and almost unimaginable advances in biology, chemistry, physics, and electronics during the past quarter century. These advances have already provided remarkable enhancements for human life and have the potential for even more improvements. This accelerated pace of scientific advancement has hindered the ability of our cultural values and laws to deal adequately with the opportunities and dangers such developments present. When it comes to the most recent scientific advancements dealing with the "edges of life," the media and the scientific and academic communities look to experts in bioethics for analysis, criticism, and support. The media and people in general are interested in these issues because while the creation of human life and the destruction of human embryos are often facts of this research, usually the focus is on the possible benefits to humans if the research can be developed into a new more therapeutic technology.

Currently, one does not have to search far to discover major news outlets focusing on many of these "edges of life" issues, especially cloning and stem cell research. (4) On November 26, 2001, The New York Times published a story entitled Company Says It Produced Embryo Clones, (5) and on December 3, 2001, the Times ran a story entitled German Panel Recommends Imports of Stem Cells. (6) These latter two stories are based on the claim by Advanced Cell Technology (7) that it has cloned human embryos and intends to use these embryos as a source for producing stem cells, but not to create new individuals. (8) If these claims are accurate, and its research is successful, a company like Advanced Cell Technology might serve as a source of stem cells for the entire world. The stem cell controversy is so timely that on December 18, 2001, The New York Times devoted its entire Science Times section to a discussion of these issues. (9)

In this article, I intend to focus on embryonic stem cell research, and on cloning and parthenogenesis insofar as these procedures are used in the creation of embryonic stem cells, and how these areas of research relate to ideas concerning respect for human life and dignity, and its treatment in American jurisprudence. First, I will briefly describe what stem cells are and how they are related to cloning. Then, after analyzing notions of respect for human life and their entailments, I will contemplate what level of respect is due to human embryos at the blastocyst stage, whether produced by fertilization of an egg by sperm, by cloning, or by parthenogenesis. From this ethical perspective, I will then consider three related but distinct questions: (1) What are the ethical issues involved in research using stem cells derived from adult persons or from cells saved from the umbilical cord? …


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