Panel divided over moral status of human embryo

The President’s Council on Bioethics should work to establish a framework for public moral debate and should determine how to make progress in a discussion that is essentially gridlocked over the issue of the moral status of the human embryo, a panel of Christian and Jewish theologians and bioethics experts said last week.


Mary Schultz
Communications Manager

In the absence of consensus, the Council should turn its attention to the inevitable “collision of commitments” between those who support continued stem cell research and those who seek to protect the sanctity of life, said Laurie Zoloth, director of Jewish Studies and associate professor at San Francisco State University.

The disparity between these two perspectives is “an insoluble difference, and one that we’ve seen lead to the abortion wars of the last 20 years. I would hate to see basic science and the civic discourse continually enmeshed in what I think is an intellectually interesting but ultimately politically fruitless and despairing set of wars.”

Brent Waters, director of the Center for Ethics and Values and assistant professor at Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary, hopes that the new Council will “provide a framework that would enable us to have a public moral debate where we really can bring [our] convictions and put [them] on the public table, rather than simply focusing on the procedures and not allowing the different moral voices to really be heard.”

“What we are deliberating about now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Fr. Kevin FitzGerald of Georgetown University Medical Center said. “What happens when the genetic technology is available and safe to do genetic interventions on people?

“The discussions we’re having now will help us as we move into that time period because they will lay some groundwork, not necessarily for forming some kind of authoritative consensus, but for beginning a process of deliberation and discernment.

“What I’m hoping that this [Council] can do. . . is to help us formulate the proper questions to pursue.”

“There’s no doubt that they’ll undertake their work with great integrity and great skill,” said Ronald Cole-Turner, H. Parker Sharp Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. They will “not only deliberate within [the Council] itself but also have a teaching role for the whole society.”

But the haphazard way the council emerged in national life is problematic, he said. “We have an election, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission goes out of existence, and the Bioethics Council takes its place.

“We really can do better as a nation in docketing our national bioethics conversation. . . . It needs to be well established as a recognized role of the federal government, well established in both the legislative and the executive branches, that we have a conversation that is consequential in terms of regulation, in terms of oversight and in terms of staying power from administration to administration.”

Cole-Turner called for consistency between administrations, “so that the poor scientists don’t have to wait for the results of an election to know whether their research is going to be funded” or to know if they must relocate to another country to continue their research.

“This is a terrible way for a democratic society to engage in the difficult task of science policy,” he said.

Established by an executive order last November, the Council consists of 18 members–including prominent scientists, philosophers, academics, lawyers, theologians, medical experts and social scientists–who were announced to the public on January 16.

The discussion of the Council on Bioethics was part of a larger debate on the moral status of the human embryo, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and held at the National Press Club on February 27.

The question of the moral status of the human embryo is at the heart of the debate over therapeutic cloning and stem cell research, FitzGerald said, but scientific advances have muddled our conception of the embryo.

“What does it mean to be an embryo? . . .Certainly five or six years ago someone might have said, well, embryo is simple: fusion of sperm and egg. Of course, that would have left out Dolly. Now as some people say, maybe Dolly was never an embryo. Well, then, was she ever a fetus? And if not, is she a sheep?”

The challenge for us today lies in framing our questions appropriately, FitzGerald said. In the meantime, “one of the things we do know is that at one time, all of us here gathered in this room were embryos. All of us were fertilized, two-cell, four-cell, eight-cell embryos. If the embryos had been destroyed, we would not be here.”

But Zoloth disagreed. “It is undoubtedly true that all of us were embryos, but most embryos, larger than 90 percent of embryos, are not persons and will never be persons…a potential thing isn’t the thing; it’s a potential thing, and that’s a key distinction.”

All of us will be corpses one day, and as such are potential corpses now, she said. “And yet we don’t treat each other like corpses, even though undoubtedly we will be corpses with an absolute certainly not enjoyed by any embryo.”

Drawing from principles of Judaic law, Zoloth said, “Our priority in thinking about this problem is the moral status of the human community rather than the moral status of the human embryo.

“Who are we as human persons? Are we a moral community? What is our commitment to justice in the world? Are we helping the vulnerable, and who do we mean by vulnerable? In Jewish law this would not be the human embryo; it would be the born persons to whom we have obligations, to whom we have duties and who have duties back to us.”

Cole-Turner, a Christian, agreed with Zoloth. Some Christians argue that Jesus’s injuction in Matthew 25 to care for “the least of these” applies to the unborn, he said, but it makes more sense to place the value in a baby–the human being that actually exists outside of its mothers womb–than in an embryo.

“The human embryo, as I see it, must be recognized as the icon or the window of our own destiny. See the embryo in a dish not as an isolated, individual entity, but as an way in which human nature itself is malleable and modifiable by technological action.”

If our obligation to “born persons” propels us to harvest stem cells for medical research, FitzGerald, a Catholic, said, we must consider that access to these treatments by the people who most need them is by no means guaranteed.

“We already know many examples of cases around the world where people have diseases that we can treat now, and they don’t benefit because they don’t have access to those treatments. We also know that 11,000 children die everyday from a lack of clean water, and yet oftentimes you hear in this debate how much this is going to be good for our children. Who’s ‘our?’ Which children are those?”

Cole-Turner and Waters, who both hail from the United Church of Christ, disagreed on the status of the embryo. According to Cole-Turner, there is within the history of Christianity no “long-term dogma” regarding the proper definition of the human embryo. The concept of the embryo is a dynamic one that has evolved with increased scientific understanding. “The best any faith tradition can do is to regard it as a moving target.”

But Waters proposed that a better way to consider the question of the moral status of the human embryo is to consider the human embryo as our neighbor. “It’s much more difficult to think of you neighbor as an isolated or an abstract concept” than it is to think of an embryo in these terms.

“And, speaking as a Christian theologian, I must remind myself constantly that we are commanded by God to love our neighbors.”

“I realize that it may be objected that. . . .We cannot seriously consider the embryo to be a neighbor because we cannot interact or form a relationship with it. In other words, how do you consider this dot tin the petri dish to be a neighbor? Yet I would remind us that being a good neighbor does not always require reciprocity or even interaction.

Recognizing the embryo as our “neighber” might not make moral deliberation any easier, Waters acknowledged. “How indeed do we simultaneously exhibit love for neighbors, some of whom are in desperate need of healing and more efficacious medical treatments, and some of whom are in the most weak and vulnerable stages of their development as human beings? And even more perplexing, how do we exhibit this love in the practical details of the policy decisions we will be required to make?”

But “if we choose to go down the road of a research project that many assure us will lead to unprecedented advances in medicine and healthcare, I think I would prefer to make that journey in the company of embryos I regard as neighbors instead of abstract objects, to which I must assign, and rather arbitrarily, a value or a moral status.”

The panel discussion was moderated by Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Forum, based in Washington, D.C., seeks to promote a deeper understanding of the influence of religion on the ideas and institutions of American Society.