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Question: What's in the Petri Dish, Property or Person?

One inescapable ethical question to be confronted has been formulated by Glenn McGee and Arthur Caplan, "What's in the dish?"Glenn McGee and Arthur L. Caplan, "What's in the Dish?" Hastings Center Report, 29:2 (March-April 1999) 36-38. One insightful point made by these two authors which we will not take up thoroughly... Is an oocyte hosting a transferred DNA nucleus a person, or a potential person? Is a fertilized ovum from an IVF clinic that has been borrowed in order to make a blastocyst a potential person; or is it merely a piece of property to be donated for destruction in medical research? If the blastocyst is a potential person because its trophechtoderm makes it totipotent, is each interior pluripotent hES cell less of a potential person just because it no longer has access to a trophoblast? Would the pluripotent hES cell be considered a potential person if we could discover how to turn on its trophoblast genes and make a placenta? Would these questions apply as well to hEG cells taken from an aborted fetus? Even if pluripotent hES and hEG cells could be removed from the list of potential persons, would their respective sources in destroyed blastocysts and aborted fetuses render their utilization unethical?

These questions are essential to evangelical Right-to-Life advocates and Roman Catholics who borrow categories from earlier stages in the abortion debate. Richard Land, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention objects to treating stem cells as property. "Human cells, tissues, and organs should not be commodities to be bought and sold in a biotech slave market." He adds, "Some researchers have established in their own minds an arbitrary lesser moral status for human beings in their embryonic stage of development."Cited in "Embryo Research Contested," by Denyse O'Leary, Christianity Today, 43:6 (May 24, 2999) 27.

The Roman Pontiff and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith attribute full human personhood and dignity and moral status to us from the moment of fertilization on. In order to avoid any slight of ethical hand that might compromise this firm position, the Vatican uses interchangeably terms such as 'zygote', 'pre-embryo', 'embryo', and 'foetus'.Donum Vitae or "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation; Replies to Certain Questions of the Day," in Bioethics , 3rd ed., edited by Thomas A. Shannon...

What is of indispensable value here for our ethical deliberation is the Vatican's unflinching resolve to protect the dignity of human personhood. Yet, the questions raised by stem cell research are more than this line of ethical deliberation is presently ready to handle. The Vatican's approach is like an ethical spray gun; whereas what we need in this instance is to paint with a fine pencil brush. We need to color within the lines, so that we avoid accidentally blotting out advances in the quality of human health and flourishing.

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Go to Genetics Topic Index

Question: What's in the Petri Dish, Property or Person?

The Stem Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
What are the New Discoveries?
Stem Cells: What Are They?
The Enormous Potential Value of Stem Cell Research
Ethics Influencing Science?
Question: Will Stem Cell Research Encourage an Increase in Embryo Destruction and Abortions?
Question: What is the Embryonic Status of Totipotent and Pluripotent Stem Cells?
Question: Why is "Derivation" Important?
Question: is There a Potential Baby in Every Body Cell?


Ted Peters

Dr. Ted Peters

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