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Framework #1: Protecting the Early Embryo

The first moral framework we call the embryo protectionframework. The most prominent issue in the public debate about stem cell research is the moral status of the embryo. People have asked: should an embryo be granted the same moral status as a human person? The embryo protection framework takes this as the principle moral concern; this concern functions as a moral frame for understanding and interpreting all of the stem cell debate.

This framing of the ethical question begins with the origin of stem cells. The destruction of the blastocyst takes center stage. Many who operate within this framework take the zygote as having a moral status equal to that of any other person. They argue that the destruction of the blastocyst is tantamount to taking a human life. Insofar as human embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of a blastocyst, it is held to be morally illicit, regardless of the potential good it might offer.

On what grounds might we think the early embryo possesses a dignity that forbids scientists from harming it? The most sophisticated account is provided by Vatican Catholics. It ties together ensoulment, dignity, moral protection, and genetic novelty. This position, articulated already in the 1987 encyclical Donum Vitae provides the foundational moral logic for what would later become the official Roman Catholic position on the stem cell debate.Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origins and on the Dignity of Procreation (Donum Vitae) ( 22 February 1987 ), ActaApsotolicaeSedis 1988,80,70-102....Donum Vitae argues that three elements are crucial to the creation of a morally defensible human individual: the father’s sperm, the mother’s egg, and a divinely implanted soul. Donum Vitae notes that at fertilization a novel genetic code - neither that of the mother nor that of the father - is created. Donum Vitae takes this genomic novelty to be evidence of the presence of a unique individual, and thus reasonably the moment of ensoulment. Ensoulment is the event which establishes a divine moral claim, so that the destruction of the blastocyst constitutes not only murder but an offense against God’s creation. Alleged empirical evidence that the early embryo has this divinely ascribed status is the uniqueness of the person-to-be’s unique genetic code. Once a unique genome has been established, then it is morally incumbent on us to protect it from harm.

The orienting bioethical principle of the embryo protection framework is “nonmaleficence” - that is, “do no harm.” To take a life (the life of the developing zygote in this case) violates the do no harm principle. According to many working within this framework, our first ethical responsibility is to forestall stem cell research. Those who support stem cell research are accused of disrespect for the value of human life. Foremost among those who frame the debate in this way are Roman Catholic spokespersons and some outspoken Protestant American evangelicals.

When the issue is framed this way, those who support stem cell research must argue that an early embryo or blastocyst is not a ‘human person’ and that destroying it is not equivalent to murder. These arguments can be difficult to make. If the blastocyst is not yet fully a human person and therefore protectable, when does a developing zygote become protectable? The public debate has largely raged over this question; the embryo protection framework has set the terms of the debate. Because so much public attention is given to this framing, we sometimes fail to notice that voices speaking out of two other frameworks are trying to be heard.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

Go to Genetics Topic Index

Framework #1: Protecting the Early Embryo

Stem Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief
The Promise and Science of Stem Cells
Stem Cells and Cloning
Framework #2: Protecting Human Nature from Brave New World
Framework #3: Medical Benefits
Jewish and Muslim Frameworks
More Ethical Questions
What about Other Sources of Stem Cells?
Souls, Humans, and God
What Should We Do?
Further Reading


Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

See also:
Pain and Suffering
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology
DNA Double-Helix