DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L142-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2003
Retrieved June 04, 2020, from

5. Ethical issues: therapeutic and other applications

CNR offers the most promising prospects of treating a number of human diseases caused by organ failure, especially in terms of cell therapy and transplantation (see §2). However, ethical objections have been advanced against therapeutic and other applications of CNR.

  1. Slippery slope. The refinement of CNR techniques may make it possible for scientists to practice reproductive cloning, which, as we have seen in §4, is widely considered ethically unacceptable and is in practice almost universally prohibited. However, slippery slopes do not exist. A slippery slope is supposedly a place where once one a foot has been set a slide to the bottom is inevitable. But this is never the case. There is always choice, and the business of ethics is to identify which choices should be made and for what reasons. The right question to address when slippery slopes are foreseen is whether to don skis or crampons!

  2. The use of embryos. CNR involves the creation and destruction of embryos at the blastocyst stage. One of the most compelling objections to the use of CNR for therapeutic and research purposes is that it results in the destruction of human life. For some people, this is equivalent to killing persons. This objection, which raises the most acute conflicts and has remarkable influence on national legislation, is linked to the moral status that people attach to the embryo.

    Very briefly, there are three different positions on the moral status of the embryo and on the ethical acceptability of using and destroying embryos (Harris 1980 and 1999; Hursthouse 1987; Oderberg 2000a).

    First, there are those who do not believe that the embryo is or should be regarded as a person. Embryos deserve the same protection as any other human tissue, and to the same extent as it may be ethical to use and destroy other human tissue for important purposes, it may be ethical to use and destroy embryos for purposes such as research and therapy.

    Second, there are those who believe that the embryo is more ‘special’ than other human tissues, as it is a particular type of tissue that gradually develops into a human being. Therefore the embryo gradually becomes ethically more relevant, and deserves more protection as it grows. Within this group, some people identify a stage of development in which the embryo becomes morally relevant (for example, when it loses its totipotency, or when it is implanted in the womb, or when the primitive streak appears). Despite these differences, advocates of this position normally accept creation and use early embryos for highly beneficial purposes, as they generally believe that at this stage the embryo does not yet enjoy full moral status.

    Finally, there are those who regard the use and destruction of embryos as always unethical. We spend more time on this position, as it has stimulated a rich philosophical and theological debate and is still at the heart of many disputes relating to practices involving the use of embryos. The main arguments against creation, use and destruction of embryos are as follows.

    1. The personhood argument. An embryo is a person from the moment of conception. Destroying an embryo is therefore unacceptable. Killing an embryo to save another life is equivalent to killing one person to save another, and experiments on embryos are the equivalent of experiments on vulnerable populations. The arguments on personhood have produced a wide theological and philosophical debate. Many have tried to resolve the dispute by defining what is a person or when the embryo becomes a person, an attempt that has in fact reinforced the dispute and raised more theoretical issues than have been resolved. No agreed paradigm of ‘personhood’ has so far been articulated.

    2. The potentiality argument. According to this argument, we cannot say whether the embryo is a person, but it has the potential to become a person, and therefore should be treated as if it were one. This view seems to correspond to an intuition, according to which there is something special in this small organism that may develop into ‘one of us’. However, the potentiality argument gives rise to a number of paradoxes. First, gametes also have the potentiality to develop into a person. Should they also be protected by law? Second, we cannot treat something that has the potentiality to develop into something else as if it were already something else; we do not treat children as adults simply in virtue of their potential to become adults, and more prosaically acorns are not oak trees and do not make good furniture. Finally, the statement that embryos have the potentiality to become persons is simply false. Not all embryos have this potentiality, as many of them have genetic malformations or defects, or would require a uterus that they will not find, or will spontaneously abort.

    3. The benefit-of-the-doubt argument. We have no biological or philosophical basis for stating or denying that the embryo is a person. But we cannot risk committing murder, so since the embryo may be a person we have to allow it the benefit of the doubt and treat it as if it were a person. However, as the UK House of Lords argued, if there were no serious reasons for creating and using human embryos for research or therapeutic purposes, then the mere possibility that the embryo is a person from conception would be a sufficient reason not to carry out such research. But there are important reasons, and respect for persons may also be seen from the point of view of diseased people whose suffering would be alleviated. The mere possibility that the early embryo is a person must be weighed against the benefits that will result from embryo creation and use (House of Lords 2002: 22).

  3. Other arguments: the current social and legal context. In most European countries abortion and IVF are accepted practices. It is known that three to six embryos are created for each IVF intervention, and that the supernumerary embryos may be disposed of after a number of years. Those who believe that abortion and IVF are acceptable admit that it may be ethical to destroy an embryo either to protect the mother’s health or life, or to treat infertility. If it is accepted that embryos are killed for these purposes, then it seems also acceptable to create and use embryos for treating invalidating and life-threatening diseases (such as cancer or Alzheimer’s; see DOH 2000: 26). If, on the contrary, creation and use of embryos is ethically inadmissible, even for saving human lives, then coherence would require making abortion and IVF criminal offences.

Citing this article:
Harris, John and Simona Giordano. Ethical issues: therapeutic and other applications. Cloning, 2003, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L142-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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