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Question: Will Stem Cell Research Encourage an Increase in Embryo Destruction and Abortions?

Although this is a quantitative question applied to a qualitative ethical concern, we intuitively sense that the public impact of such science is morally relevant. We rightly fear that if such science and its resulting technology proceed this might encourage couples to fertilize ova for the purposes of sale or donation and that it might encourage abortions for harvesting hEG cells. At this point, however, it appears that this would be an unfounded fear.

More fertilized ova are already being generated by reproductive technology clinics than will ever be implanted. It is known well in advance that many will be destroyed as a matter of course. Therefore, diverting some for scientific research purposes constitutes a potential beneficial use for tissue that would otherwise be discarded. Scientific research is not in effect preventing human births.

Let us press the question: would stem cell research lead to increased demand for fetal tissue or for IVF embryos? Probably not. Over the last four or five years of research, relatively few fetuses, less than 100, have actually been harvested for experimentation. Experiments at University of San Francisco and University of Wisconsin use less than two dozen IVF embryos per year. The hope downstream is that laboratories could generate enough stem cells in culture to preclude constant demand for more and more tissue. In sum, stem cell research as presently understood should have a negligible impact on IVF or abortion practices.

The Ethics Advisory Board of the Geron Corporation, for a case in point, has taken a position against deliberately fertilizing ova for the purpose of selling or even donating them to make hES cells. Stem cell research of this type should proceed on the assumption that it would have a sufficient supply of discarded fertilized ova that would never have had the opportunity for implantation. The Ethics Advisory Board strongly recommends that the donating women or couples provide fully informed consent, but not that they share in the financial profit.Karen Lebacqz, Michael M. Mendiola, Ted Peters, Ernlé W.D. Young, and Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, "Research with Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Ethical Considerations," Hastings Center Report, 29:2 (March-April... The removal of the profit motive at this stage of harvesting will be ethically helpful, because it avoids treating fertilized ova and fetuses as property.

With regard to the practice of using aborted fetuses as a source for hEG cells, it would pass a strict Roman Catholic moral test if it meets one condition. If the fetuses are the result of spontaneous or natural abortion, then harvesting hEG cells would be licit. If they are the result of elective abortion, then it would not be licit. Similarly, Jewish ethical principles are likely to yield approval on the grounds that medical science is drawing something good out of an otherwise tragic situation, drawing good out of a respectful use of a dead body. Apart from the question of when life begins in or beyond the womb, the appeal here is to the moral value of the dead providing something life-giving for those who come later.

No matter how relevant such traditional deliberation might be, many more questions remain to be formulated and attended to.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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