Ethics, experiments and embryos

By Brian Edgar

The debate about the use of embryonic stem cells continues. There is no problem with the value of stem cell research per se.  The potential benefits are well documented, very real and profoundly significant, even if the immediacy of the benefits has been over-stated.  And there are no ethical problems related to research on adult stem cells per se and every reason for it to continue. The ethical dimension of ‘the stem cell debate’ really relates to the moral status of embryos from whom stem cells may be obtained – at the cost of the loss of life of the embryo.

The ethical concerns therefore relate to the appropriateness of experimentation on, and thus the destruction of, early embryos.

The following paper, which discusses the ethics of embryonic stem cell research was published in 2005 as part of my role as Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance. The paper notes that exactly the same ethical issues concerning experimentation on, and the destruction of, embryos have been raised and debated on a number of previous occasions since the development of IVF and ET procedures in the 1980’s. The most notable reports have been “The Report on the Disposition of Embryos Produced by In Vitro Fertilization” of the Committee to Consider the Social, Ethical and Legal Issues arising from In Vitro Fertilization of the Government of the State of Victoria (August 1984: ‘the Waller report’)) and the report “Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia” of the Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985.

The conclusions reached by the Victorian and Federal government committees are worth reproducing here as the fundamental issues remain the same. The Senate Select Committee found that the embryo deserved some respect due to “the human and social origin of the sperm and eggs which forms them” but even further respect “in deference to the embryo’s human and social future” and concluded that “it is in its orientation to the future that the [Senate Select] committee finds the feature of the embryo which commands such a degree of respect as to prohibit destructive non-therapeutic experimentation”.

The paper can be downloaded here: Ethics, Experiments and Embryos

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