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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

The more opinions I read about stem cell research and the beginning of human life, the more confused I am about the "moral" concerns of those opposed. Almost everyone knows by now that there are approximately 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States. Of these, at least 9,000 will probably be (or already are) marked for disposal. Someone will throw them away. But many of those morally righteous people who helped create the surplus of embryos in the first place, those who wanted children so badly they had them created in a Petri dish, are adamantly opposed to allowing the unwanted (surplus) embryos to be used for life-saving research.

Help me out here. It is better to destroy these extra embryos than use them for research that might create major breakthroughs in a number of terminal diseases and disabling conditions? Conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, cancer, HIV/Aids, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, autism, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis? 128 million Americans suffer from diseases or injuries that could be treated or cured with stem cell therapies. Almost half of all American families have a member suffering from one of these distressing conditions.

The opposition uses terms like murder and dismemberment when discussing stem cell research, but appears to ignore what happens to the left-overs, the embryos no one seems to want. And what about the living, breathing children who would benefit from such research? Have these people actually looked at some of their pictures? Have they compared them to the cluster of cells they're fighting so righteously to save? To save for what? To be kept frozen for eternity? To be tossed out like stale bread?

Where oh where has common sense gone? I personally find it offensive that infertile couples selfishly create so many extra embryos. I find it horrifying that we have hundreds of thousands of embryos lying around frozen in labs all over the country. But what I find most horrifying of all is prioritizing those small groups of cells over saving living, breathing, "look at us, we're here now!" human beings.

One of the big arguments is that all human beings are equal, and opponents to stem cell research honestly believe that early-stage embryos are human beings. Here's a question for them: if a lab was on fire and your children, let's say ages 3, 7 and 12 were inside, which would you try to save first -- your three "aware" children, or the frozen cells you've always called a child?

Morality is never black and white, although there are those who live their lives trying to prove it is. Shades of gray have a tendency to creep in at inopportune moments, forcing us to question long-held beliefs, to wonder if we were right or wrong all along. I wonder how many parents would no longer oppose stem cell research if their beloved child suddenly suffered a spinal cord injury. It’s easy to take the moral high road when you, yourself, have nothing to lose. It’s harder to stay there once the sky turns gray.

A couple of thoughts:

(1) Just to clarify one point: as I understand it anyhow, infertile couples do NOT "selfishly create so many extra embryos." The extra embryos are a necessary by-product of the laws of chance: because the whole "artificial conception" process is basically a crapshoot (they can never be sure which ones will "take"), the medical teams need to have multiple backups in case the first attempt doesn't do the trick. Your outrage on the general issue makes sense, but it's a little unfair to chalk up the, um, embryo surplus to the desperately hopeful parents' selfishness.

(2) It seems to me that people people with an interest in raising a child not their own, for any number of reasons, have a right to request (or better said, might have the privilege of requesting) that one or more of these spare embryos be allotted to them for upbringing. This suggests a good middle way between the extremes -- "no embryos for any ungodly/scientific purposes at all!" and "all spare embryos to be used for ungodly/scientific purposes only!" The middle way, in short, would be to designate a pool of some arbitrary number or percentage of embryos, setting them aside for "adoption" (if that's the right term). (To avoid problems arising from selectivity (say, making available only those embryos identified as genetically "good"), the choice of which embryos to set aside should be made at random.)

The general idea is to give "dibs" on the embryos to anyone who wants them to establish a family or whatever (though hopefully not to populate a cult :). The plan would guarantee that anyone who wanted such an embryo could have one. Even if we set the quota (hideous dispassionate term, but that's what it is) at a high level, like 50%, we'd still be way ahead of the game in terms of the number of embryos available for stem-cell research. And as long as no one who wanted embryos for their own family purposes was ever turned away, the right would have no cause to gripe.

Which wouldn't necessarily stop them from griping, of course. But it would be easier to make the practical public case.
First, let me clarify my use of the word selfish I understand WHY the clinics have backups as you call them, but what about the ones not used? It's sad but true that most are designated for "storage," that is kept frozen until they're no longer viable. And many couples have a hard time deciding to let someone else raise their "baby." Right now, only 2% of the embryos are available for adoption.

So, these couples allow their doctor to fertilize numerous eggs (one case mentioned 23), use as many as necessary to be successful, then most of them opt for continued storage of the rest, rather than for research or adoption. Maybe that's not selfish, but it sure is something.

Here's a good article on embryo adoption. You might want to read it.
Go to article
What about real-baby adoption? It seems the people that are so adamant about wanting to be able to terminate a potential-life (and you all might be right--it could just be some cells stuck together and not at all a human) would be chomping at the bit to adopt because it IS, without a doubt, a human life. So now that it's here, why not take care of it?
That's a good point, Token Conservative -- about the real-no-question-about-it babies. Wonder if anyone has any statistics at their fingertips? How many infants/toddlers/children are available for adoption but have been waiting for someone to claim them?

Toni, try to put yourself in the position of someone with responsibility for the embryos (clinics and, less directly, the parents). The problem for them is: How do we decide which embryos to make available, either for adoption or for research? And I think that -- for a variety of reasons -- they need to err on the side of caution. That is, they need to hold back many more embryos from research than are actually claimed for adoption.

What I'd like to see happen, and maybe this is a pipe dream, is a standard contract between the medical service provider (or whatever you call them) and the parents. It would include a clause something like, "I, the parent, understand that IVF is a procedure with an uncertain outcome. For this reason, many more fertilized eggs will be [created?] than will be actually needed by me or my family and other heirs. Accordingly, I agree that once I (or we, as parents) have attained the goal of one [or however many healthy/survivable/whatever criteria] successful IVFs, X percent of the remaining embryos are to be used to improve the quality of life of the community at large, through stem-cell or other research."

Call me a dreamer, I know.
You dreamer!

Seriously though, it's not a bad idea. I would guess that even the most evangelical among us would agree that if the decision came down to toss billions of these into the medical waste bin or potentially save lives would happily (ok, grudgingly) choose the latter option.

If nothing else it would determine the selfishness of those who wanted a baby. Picture your stereotypical far-right couple looking to have six kids. Which way do they lean? Appease the church and create a large family at the expense of thousands of "maybe-babies"?

Very intriguing concept you raise...
I don't know if this is relevant or not. But I seem to recall that the birth rate in the US has actually crossed the line: married couples on average are having fewer than two children. Which yields (or will yield) a negative population growth.

(In Russia it's even more a negative "growth," but I think there it's more a matter of infant mortality.)

If this is true, how does it alter the argument(s) on either side? Or doesn't it alter them at all?
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