The Westminster Faith Debates 13th February 2013.

The Westminster Faith Debates 13th February 2013.

 © John Harris 2013

 This presentation is adapted from and a much shorter version of Chapter X of my Enhancing Evolution Princeton 2007.

 Those who regard the moral status of the embryo as a significant bar to its use as a source of therapeutic, experimental or enhancement material, or indeed to the legitimacy of abortion maintain what may be called: The Moral Significance Thesis.

 The Moral Significance Thesis

 The Moral Significance Thesis holds that early embryos have equal or similar enough intrinsic worth to that of a person, that the intentional or foreseeable destruction of embryos, whether in the sourcing of stem cells or other material from embryos, in therapy, enhancement and medical research, or in any other way, including abortion is illegitimate.

 Against the The Moral Significance Thesis I may have time to argue:

 (a)    The Moral Significance Thesis generates absurd implications connected to embryo splitting (namely, it would be immoral to re-combine or split embryos; or to fail to split embryos).

(b)   The Moral Significance Thesis assumes that early embryos have rights (“intrinsic worth”) but they couldn’t, and most legislators and the law in most jurisdictions and in international courts agrees that they do not.

(c)    Even the supporters of The Moral Significance Thesis tend to recognize that embryos lack the kind of worth that would make destroying embryos in embryonic stem cell research wrong. For they procreate (or permit others to do so), although procreation destroys embryos, often- for less important purposes.

 The Ambiguity of Embryo

 The embryo is a deeply, perhaps irretrievably ambiguous entity, one that defies classification and slips seamlessly between moral, biological and even mathematical categories.

 Embryo Splitting[1] [2]

 When identical twins occur in nature they result from the splitting of the early embryo in utero and the resulting twins, true clones, have identical genomes. This process can be mimicked in the laboratory or the clinic and in vitro embryos can be deliberately split creating matching siblings one or both or which can be us used for biopsy or research.

 This process itself has a number of ethically puzzling if not problematic features. If you have a pre-implantation embryo in the early stages of development and split it, let us say into four clumps of cells, each one of these four clumps constitutes a new embryo which is viable and could be implanted with the reasonable expectation of successful development into adulthood. Each clump is the clone or identical “twin” of any of the others and comes into being, not through conception but because of the division of the early cell mass.  Moreover, these four clumps can be recombined into one embryo again.  This creates a situation where, without the destruction of a single human cell, one human life, if that is what it is, can be split into four and can be recombined again into one. Did “life” in such a case begin as an individual, become four individuals and then turn into a singleton again? We should note that whatever our answer to this question, all this occurs without the creation of extra matter and without the destruction of a single cell.

 Those who think that ensoulment, takes place at conception have an interesting problem to account for the splitting of one soul into four, and for the destruction of three souls when the four embryos are recombined into one, and to account for (and resolve the ethics of) the destruction of three individuals, without a single human cell being removed or killed.  These possibilities should perhaps, give us pause in attributing a beginning of morally important life to a point like conception.[3] 

 Embryo splitting allows the use of genetic and other screening by embryo biopsy

 If, as seems likely, the reason why it is thought objectionable to recombine such clones is the loss of potential human beings, then perhaps it would be considered  unethical not to split any embryo into as many twins as possible? By so doing we would after all, maximise just that potential, the loss of which, supposedly, inhibits recombination. If all this has a dizzying effect, it is perhaps because the language that we use misleads us.

 Imagine an in vitro embryo where all cells are at the toti-potent stage, if this bundle of cells were to be split it into four clumps of cells and you will have created four (new?) twin embryos. Take three away and destroy them or recombine all four into one and you are in a sense back where you started having done exactly the same thing in one sense, namely created a single potentially viable embryo with a particular genome.  In another sense you have wasted potential experimental material or potentially viable embryos or even killed three human individuals. Yet this waste arguably also occurs whenever a cell mass that could viably be divided is left undivided, or whenever an egg that could be fertilised is left unfertilised. If the recombined embryo, or the surviving quadruplet, is implanted, comes to birth and grows to maturity it will have the same genome as it would have had, if the division and recombination had never taken place or if its siblings had never been created and disappeared. Will it be the same person as it would have been, does it have the same identity as it did in its former incarnation? Certainly its life story is different.

 Potentiality[4]

 There seem to be two problems with potentiality interpreted as the idea that human embryos or fetuses are morally important beings in virtue of their potential, or have a protectable interest in actualising that potential.

 The first objection to protecting individuals because of their potential is  logical, acorns are not oak trees, nor eggs omelettes.  It does not follow from that fact that something has potential to become something different that we must treat it always as if it had achieved that potential.  We are all inevitably dead meat nut (I hope) that gives none of us a justification to treat others as if they were already dead meat.

 The second difficulty with the potentiality argument involves the scope of the potential for personhood. If the human zygote (early embryo) has the potential to become an adult human being and is supposedly morally important in virtue of that potential, then what of the potential to become a zygote? Something has the potential to become a zygote, and whatever thing or things have the potential to become the zygote have whatever potential the zygote has. We now know that cell re-programming can allow (in principle) any cell in your or my body to be re-programmed to allow development into a human being.

 Thus if the argument from potential is understood to afford protection and moral status to whatever has the potential to grow into a normal adult human being, then potentially every human cell deserves protection. For this important potential is possessed by  whatever has the potential to become an embryo.[5]

 Humans are reckless of embryonic human life

 Recent research has confirmed abnormality rate for life births associated with sexual reproduction is almost certainly  more than 6%[6] but given the moral importance attached to embryos and the fact that embryos are regarded by many as sharing the same moral status, with the rest of humankind, it is the tolerated rate of embryo loss that is particularly interesting. Embryo loss in normal sexual reproduction including unprotected intercourse is certainly very high. There is the loss to be associated with every live birth as well as the loss that occurs routinely in unprotected intercourse. To this must be added embryo loss as a direct result of a number of widely used methods of “contraception”. In connection with embryo loss associated with sexual reproduction including unprotected intercourse not directly intended to result in conception, Robert Winston gave the figure of 5 embryos lost for every live birth some years ago (in a personal communication). Anecdotal evidence to me from a number of sources confirms this high figure but the literature is rather more conservative, making more probable a figure of three embryos lost for every live birth.[7] This means that each of us is here over the dead bodies of three of our sublings!

 Additional embryo loss occurs as a result of the operation of the combined oral contraceptive pill which has a number of modes of operation, one of which prevents implantation of the embryo at between 5-8 days development. Equally the so-called morning after contraceptive pill also prevents implantation as does the Intra Uterine Device or Coil.[8] The combined effects of these various contraceptive methods increase the tally of embryo loss as a “side effect” of human sexuality but it is impossible to arrive at reliable estimates as to the total numbers of embryos involved. Interestingly most of this embryo loss involves the death of embryos at precisely the stage of development at which stem cells are usually harvested for Embryonic Stem Cell (ES cell) research, namely between 5 and 8 days development. This stage is preferred because the cells have not begun to specialize (which takes place at implantation in vivo) and so are still totipotent or pluripotent and therefore can be made to specialize into almost any required cell types.

 Those who attempt to have children in the light of these facts and indeed those who have unprotected intercourse, or who use contraceptive methods which risk embryo loss, all must accept that what they are doing or trying to do justifies the creation and destruction of embryos.

 In the case of attempts to procreate using sexual reproduction, one obvious and inescapable conclusion is that God and/or nature has ordained that “spare” embryos be produced for almost every pregnancy, and that most of these will have to die in order that a sibling embryo can come to birth. Thus the wilful creation and sacrifice of embryos is an inescapable and inevitable part of the process of procreation. It may not be intentional sacrifice, and it may not attend every pregnancy, but the loss of many embryos is the inevitable consequence of the vast majority (perhaps all) pregnancies. For everyone who knows the facts of life, it is conscious, knowing and therefore deliberate sacrifice; and for everyone, regardless of ‘guilty’ knowledge, it is part of the true description of what they do in having or attempting to have children.

 The inescapable conclusion is that the production of spare embryos, some of which will be sacrificed, is not unique to ART; it is an inevitable, (and presumably acceptable, or at least tolerable?) part of all reproduction.

 Sexual reproduction is like offering  future children the following bargain:   “Here’s the deal, you have a chance of coming into existence but only if you accept greater than normal risks – take it or leave it!” A rational embryo or would-be embryo would take the deal, because the alternative is non-existence.”

 Those who accept such destruction as part of a procreative project accept that the creation of new life is a cause good enough to justify such a course of action. Since most people believe that the saving of existing life takes priority over the creation of new life, the use of embryos in the production of life saving therapies is clearly justified. Research directed towards life saving therapies or the production of those therapies is, it is true, at one further remove from life saving but I believe it must also justify embryo loss if reproduction does.[9]

 Those who doubt that attempts to save existing life takes precedence over creating new life should consider the ethics of the emergency room doctor in the following dialogue[10]:

 The phone in the doctors station at the hospital rings….

 “Doctor there is an emergency you are the only doctor who can help – a life is at risk….”

 “Nurse I have more important things to do, my boy-friend and I have just retired to bed intent on procreation, the time is propitious and you will know that creating new life is at least as important as saving existing life (and far more fun!), tell the patients I am busy with more important things….”

 Few sexually active people will be able to object to the creation and sacrifice of embryos in science research or in human enhancement or therapy if they consistently apply their principles.

 It might be said that there is a difference – those who engage in assisted reproduction create and destroy an unnecessarily high number of embryos.  However, those who engage in sexual reproduction are not engaged in the destruction of embryos at a greater rate than is required for the outcome they seek. It would be interesting to know whether, if creating a single embryo by IVF became a reliable technique for procreation those from a rather inappropriately termed “pro-life” position would feel obliged to use this method rather than sexual reproduction because of its embryo-sparing advantages. Inappropriately termed “pro-life” because those who regard themselves as “pro-life” so often support positions which can only be thought of as anti-life and which moreover are profligate of human life and safety.[11]

 Flight “United  93”.[12]

 On September 11th 2001 passengers on flight “United 93” are reliably believed to have overcome hijackers and forced a hi-jacked plane to crash into a field in Pennsylvania, so forestalling the attempt to target a highly populated and high profile building, but killing everyone on board. Such an act, while defending the victims in the “target of choice” did involve killing the innocent passengers and crew. Not all the passengers could conceivably have consented to the take over of the plane and the deliberate bringing about of the  earlier crash landing so there must inevitably have been the decision by some passengers deliberately to sacrifice non-consenting others. True they would  all almost certainly have died anyway, but they were killed before they otherwise would have been. Although their deaths were probably inevitable, the deliberate (if voluntary for some) killing must have offended against the sanctity of life doctrine, for on a usual interpretation of pro-life positions, killing the innocent who are posing no threat is not legitimate however noble the justification. And killing earlier than an inevitable subsequent death is still killing otherwise euthanasia would be less problematic than it appears to some.  So this widely praised act, which probably saved many innocent lives, must, for Pro-lifers, be one of pure wickedness on the part of the passengers who resisted the hijack if their intent was to crash the plane before it could reach its target and not exclusively to overpower the hijackers.[13] The espousal by successive Popes of a rigorous hostility to condom use in the face of the continuing AIDS pandemic is estimated to have cost millions of lives and untold misery. [14]

 It looks as though there would indeed be a strong moral obligation to abandon natural procreation and use only embryo sparing ART. Indeed, if such an improvement in IVF occurred this would seem to make using IVF mandatory for those who believe the embryo is one of us. And it is interesting that so called “pro-lifers” are not (apparently) investing heavily in IVF to this end in the hope that sexual reproduction could eventually be entirely replaced by an embryo sparing method of reproduction.

 What follows from all this? It is difficult to see how most people could live lives that are today accepted as normal while maintaining a strict “pro-life” position or by acting consistently to protect embryos. The alternatives seem clear. We, humankind, must either accept that human embryos are deeply ambiguous and problematic entities of a kind whose lives or “dignity” simply cannot be protected in ways consistent either with other values that we hold or indeed consistently with the continued existence of the human species. The alternative is consistent but bleak, it involves the strict avoidance of all acts which would violate the sanctity of life of embryos. This would of course include almost all human procreation and certainly all sexual reproduction.

2600 words.


 [1] John Harris. “Rights and Reproductive Choice” in John Harris and Søren Holm (eds.). The Future of Human Reproduction: Choice and Regulation. ed.cit.: 5-37.

[2] John Harris. On Cloning ed.cit., Introduction.

[3] For elaboration of my view of the problematic nature of attributing moral significance to early embryos see my The Value of Life, ed.cit., and “Stem Cells, Sex and Procreation”, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2003; 12; 4: 353-372.

[4] Adapted from John Harris and Søren Holm. “Abortion”, in Hugh Lafollette (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003): 112-136. I thank Soren Holm for permission to adapt these jointly authored ideas and present them here.

[5] This has been the subject of the debate between Don Marquis, Julian Savulescu and others. See Don Marquis “Why Abortion is Immoral”, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 86, No. 4 (April 1989) and “Savulescu’s objections to the future of value argument”, J Med Ethics, 2005, 31:119 and Julian Savulescu “Abortion, embryo destruction and the future of value argument” J Med Ethics, 2002, 28:133-35.

[6] “Every year an estimated 7.9 million children – 6 percent of total birth worldwide – are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin. Additional hundreds of thousands more are born with serious birth defects pf post-conception origin, including maternal exposure to environmental agents, (teratogens) such as alcohol, rubella, syphilis and iodine deficiency that can harm a developing fetus.” From March of Dimes Global Report on Birth Defects, published by The March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, White Plains, New York 2006.

[7] See Charles E. Boklage “Survival Probability of Human Conceptions from Fertilization to Term” in International Journal of Fertility 1990; 35; 2: 75 – 94. Also Henri Leridon Human Fertility:  The Basic Components (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

[8] While most of those who oppose embryo research oppose  abortion in some circumstances (many exceptions for pregnancy due to rape) many do not also oppose these methods of contraception.

[9] I have argued some of these points elsewhere see: John Harris. “The use of human embryonic stem cells in research and therapy” in Justine C. Burley and John Harris (eds.). A Companion to Genetics: Philosophy and the genetic revolution (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2002). John Harris. “Stem Cells, Sex and Procreation” in Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2003; 12; 4: 353-372.

[10] For further arguments relevant to these issues see: Julian Savulescu. “Embryo Research: Are There Any Lessons from Natural Reproduction?” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2004; 13; 1: 68-96. John Harris “Sexual Reproduction Is a Survival Lottery ibid. 75-90. and Julian Savulescu and John Harris “The Creation Lottery: Final Lessons from Natural Reproduction: Why those who accept natural reproduction should accept cloning and other Frankenstein reproductive technologies.” Ibid.  90-96.

[11] John HarrisPro-life is anti-life: the problematic claims of pro-life positions in ethics.” in Matti Hayry and Tuija Takala Eds: Scratching the Surface of Bioethics…Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York. 2003. 99-109.

[12] John Harris “Stem Cells, Sex and Procreation” in Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2003; 12; 4: 353-372.

[13] It is now accepted that if future 9/11 style hijackings take place governments will have to face the question of whether to use Air Force jets or missiles to shoot down the hi-jacked planes killing all the passengers innocent and guilty. The same trade-off will apply.

[14] For more on this and in particular the role of Pope  John Paul II, see Michela Wrong “Blood of innocents on his hands” New Statesman 11 April 2005. Polly Toynbee “Not in my name” in The Guardian 8 April 2005, and Johann Hari “History will judge the Pope far more harshly than the adoring crowds in Rome” The Independent 8th April 2005. For a rational dissenting judgement see Brendan O’Neill “Did the Pope spread AIDS in Africa?” Spiked 8th April 2005 http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CA993.htm. (Accessed 30th July 2006).  See also John HarrisPro-life is anti-life: the problematic claims of pro-life positions in ethics.” In Matti Hayry and Tuija Takala (eds.). Scratching the Surface of Bioethics (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2003): 99-109. 

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