Embryo donation and research

By Brian Edgar

Now that “Robert” and “Sue” have three healthy children – all conceived through IVF, what should they do with the four ‘surplus’ embryos which they no longer need?   Should they have them destroyed, or donate them to another couple or perhaps give them to scientists to use for research?

This is the scenario which was put to six ethicists from Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Evangelical-Protestant traditions. I was asked to write about this from the Evangelical-Protestant perspective . The six responses were collated and commented on by another group of other ethicists and it was all presented in the article “Religious perspectives on embryo donation and research”,  Clinical Ethics (Royal Society of Medicine) (2010) Vol. 5, 35–45 written with Ian H Kerridge, Christopher F C Jordens,  Rod Benson,  Ross Clifford,  Rachel A Ankeny, Damien Keown, Bernadette Tobin,  Swasti Bhattacharyya,  Abdulaziz Sachedina, Lisa Soleymani Lehmann, and Brian Edgar.  The article is a useful piece of work but is also noteworthy because it has as many authors as there are pages in the article!

The full article can be obtained from the journal.

The case study being examined is as follows:

Case study – Stem Cell Research and Cloning

Robert and Sue are the parents of three healthy children, all conceived following in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). After many years of coping with infertility, they now feel that they have completed their family and do not wish to have any more children. They have four embryos remaining in cryopreservation. Their obstetrician offers them three choices: disposing of the embryos that they judge to be excess to their needs; donating their embryos to another couple; or donating their embryos for research. They are also advised that if their embryos are kept in cryopreservation for now, they will be destroyed after five years according to legislation in their state.

Sue, in particular, finds this a terrible decision to have to make, as she feels a great deal of responsibility for her embryos and is acutely aware that her children—Tom, Jessica and Elise—were all once embryos themselves. She and Robert discuss donating the remaining embryos for research, as they do not feel comfortable either destroying the embryos or donating them to another couple. Sue is particularly interested in donating them for research into infertility to help others who want to have children and are facing the difficulties that she and Robert experienced.  They are uncertain, however, how a decision to donate their embryos for this type of research, which destroys the embryos in the course of experimentation, would be viewed within the context of their faith.

You need to access the article to see the various responses. But my response was along these lines.

A Protestant Perspective

Protestant perspectives on the ethical issues which face Robert and Sue will be derived from principles and convictions derived from three fundamental Reformation principles: sola scriptura, sola fidei, and sola gratia. Robert and Sue have chosen to utilise reproductive technology to develop their family.  It should be pointed out, firstly, that a biblical evaluation of marriage does not reckon childless couples to be inferior in any way.  Nonetheless, the use of technology to allow a marriage to achieve the good of procreation is not necessarily be considered as an instance of an unwarranted ‘playing God’ but rather as a form of ‘stewardship’ and an appropriate use of technology to overcome a physiological failure which inhibits the good of procreation.

It appears that Robert and Susan have not previously considered all the implications of the use of reproductive technology.   The good that is achieved for the family requires an acceptance of the appropriateness of the loss of embryonic life (in research and the reproductive process) as well as a decision about ‘excess’ embryos.  The loss of embryonic life may be justified analogously with the loss of embryonic life in natural conception but some will not find that acceptable, given the moral status of the embryo.

At the level of individual life there are significant concerns about the embryo which is, undeniably, a stage in development of a human being.  Some will see a distinction between personhood and physical form and thus will approve of destructive research up to, often, 14 days. But just as there is no scientific rationale for saying that the embryo becomes a new entity at implantation there is no theological justification for believing embryos to be fundamentally morally transformed at that, or any other, point.  To define embryos purely from a scientific point of view as merely a collection of cells or a genetic entity produces an impoverished view of humanity. There is no understanding of humanity apart from the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As a being made in the ‘image of God’ (Genesis 1:26) and ultimately being conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29) the embryo exists in relationship with God.   An embryo may not have ‘personality’ but it has ‘personhood’ in the sense of that quality or attribute which constitutes the fundamental identity of every human entity. It should not be treated merely as a means to an end. Although it may at times receive differential treatment (when, hypothetically, in conflict with the life of the woman carrying it) it ought to be exempt from that utilitarian cost-benefit analysis often associated with justifying destructive research at up to 14 days (which, if utilised also necessarily justifies research well beyond that point).

At the level of the family there are concerns about the use of technology to re-form family structures.  Approval of the use of reproductive technology in Robert and Sue’s family situation does not necessarily imply endorsement of the use of other (e.g. donor) forms of reproductive technology. The use of donated embryos is not analogous to adoption – where the intent is to provide families for children, rather than children for families.   Some will justify donation (a) as an instance of profound grace and love, a generous gift from one couple to another, and (b) will define families in terms of the inner depth of relationships (love, care, companionship and commitment) rather than in terms of a fixed structure of relationships (genetic relationship, man-woman, parent-child). (c) It may also be seen as another example of the redemptive healing of infertility.

However, it can be argued against (c) that this is not healing so much as finding an alternative, compensating solution which, contra (b), disrupts families by introducing a connection with another couple who cannot be easily be divorced from legitimate interest (concerning genetic history, family relationships, welfare etc) in the child, except by the complete commodification and de-personalisation of the embryo.  In addition, (a) focuses on the needs of the parents and does not address the good of the children who are no longer the good that is sought (as in normal procreation) but have become the means to the good of the infertile couple.  In such a situation it is only logical that such children are formed in such a way as to maximize the good of the parents at end. This actually begins immediately with the selection of the best embryos for implantation and ends, ultimately, with ‘designer children’.  The ‘excess’ embryos are best treated like those which naturally pass away in the process of conception, rather than as a means to some other end.

In countering the modern emphasis on the rights of the individual (either the embryo or the parents) it is also important to reflect on the broader social implications of the technology. On the one hand technologies can operate redemptively, but they can also seduce us into putting our real trust in human ingenuity and mastery of nature.  Having created technology to shape the world it then turns and shapes our society, our values and our relationships.  The problem is the absence of an agreed philosophical or theological framework on which society can adequately consider the implications of these new developments.  This is more the result of a failure of theology to captivate the minds of people, and the failure of the church to model a way of life that is a genuine alternative to the technique-ism so powerfully present in modern society.

Sue and Robert should ensure that they become fully informed and while being aware of cultural trends and legislative responsibilities principles their primary need is to take seriously their responsibility as Christians. They should pray and seek wisdom, examine their motives, listen to counsel and make themselves aware of  the corporate wisdom of the church – even if it is somewhat varied.  In particular, they need to be formed in their view by biblical principles and virtues.

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