Abortion and embryo research

Jonathan Glover explains the ethics of embryo research. From Causing death and Saving Lives (Penguin, 1977)
The impasse in the abortion debate partly results from all parties treating it as an issue with only one dimension. The prochoice party often wrongly supposes that the woman’s claim to control her own life is enough to justify abortion, no matter what rights a foetus may have.

And the prolife party often assumes that the only objection to killing someone is that he or she is a person with a right to life. Once this assumption is conceded, it is indeed hard to resist the anti-abortion case. On this assumption, if it is wrong to kill babies, they must qualify as persons. And since it is difficult to draw sharp boundaries between conception and infancy, the prolife case can seem overwhelming. But the assumption should be denied.

The effects of certain kinds of acts, not on those they are done to, but on those who do them, can be of overriding importance. Take the case of research on embryos. The practice of in vitro fertilization, which has helped many infertile couples, is most effective if more embryos are produced than will finally be allowed to develop into babies. Research on these “spare” embryos may help us to understand why some people are not fertile and why some forms of congenital defects occur. Research may lead eventually to ways of avoiding these problems, and perhaps also to the development of better contraceptive techniques. But there are obvious worries about how far such research is permissible. Since the embryos are never going to develop, claims about damaging their potential do not arise. And before the nervous system starts to develop, they may not have any morally relevant properties that would distinguish them, so far as rights are concerned, from, say, an oyster. One plausible view is that the embryos may be used for research, but only before the nervous system starts to develop. This recognizes the claim any conscious being has on us that we not cause it pain, and draws the line well short of where that could happen.

But there is a disturbing possible extension of the research program. There is some evidence that Parkinson’s disease could most effectively be treated by transplanting material from the embryonic nervous system. To provide these transplants, the “spare” embryos would have to be allowed to develop well beyond the proposed limit. We might well be dealing with embryos with some degree of consciousness, including the capacity to feel pain. In reply to this, a supporter of the program might cite the great potential benefits to sufferers from Parkinson’s disease, and suggest the use of anesthetics to avoid fetal pain.

Some of us will feel very disturbed by this reply. We shudder at this idea in rather the same way we do at the thought of using anesthetized babies for research. Moreover, a problem arises for those of us who accept the objection made by the animal rights movement to “speciesism” – discrimination against a conscious being merely on grounds of its belonging to a different species. Apart from what they have the potential to become, foetuses and babies do not seem to have any of the intrinsic properties of persons with a right to life that would give them stronger moral claims than the monkeys used for research. And “spare” embryos will not develop any potential they have. Yet it is hard to believe that our revulsion against research on this late stage, or against research on anaesthetised babies, is merely a prejudice to be eliminated.

The most powerful objection to using anaesthetised foetuses for research is what this would do to us, as researchers or as members of a society where such research went on. We remember the experiments Nazi doctors were prepared to do on human beings, and wonder about the strength of the barriers that prevent us from performing atrocities. These barriers must be at least as much emotional as intellectual. We respond to people, whether babies, children, or adults, in ways that make it unthinkable, for most of us, to treat them in the fashion of Nazi doctors. Foetuses, as they develop, start to seem more like babies. Can we be sure that foetal research could be kept in a separate emotional compartment? Or do we risk an erosion of the responses that prevent some of the worst horrors that human beings have shown themselves capable of? Perhaps the risk that these barriers will be weakened is a small one, but even a small risk of a great disaster should not readily be dismissed.

If this line of thought is accepted, the moral claims of late foetuses and of babies are not exhausted by any rights depending on their qualifying as persons. Perhaps they are not persons, and have less of the required self-consciousness than some nonhuman animals. But we have reasons, to do with ourselves rather than them, for not treating them as merely disposable

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