Aim of improving quality of life

What, if anything, would be morally improper about carrying out medical experiments on human embryos with the aim of improving quality of life of subsequent born individuals? Embryo experimentation is a relatively new and groundbreaking, yet contentious issue, which has inspired much debate in recent years. It involves the use of spare embryos that are created when couples turn to in vitro fertilisation, or IVF, as a means of conceiving when conventional methods prove to be ineffective. It is what is done with these ‘spare’ embryos that is the centre of debate.

Some believe that simply removing a human egg from a woman for fertilization and implantation is immoral (Grobstein, 1982, p. 20), while others object to any experimentation on an embryo that results in it’s destruction, due to the status of the embryo, and the belief that it has a right to life (Great Britain Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1985, p. 61). Others hold the view that it is morally permissible to experiment on the embryo, as doing so can be beneficial in many ways, including assisting in the diagnosis of fertility problems and the eradication of diseases (Fisher, 1989, p. 194). It is these breakthroughs that can help to improve the quality of life for future generations of people.

IVF was created so that infertile couples would have the opportunity to reproduce, in cases where it was not possible for them to do so naturally. In the IVF process, gametes are taken from the couple involved, and mixed in-vitro, or in glass (Fisher, 1989, p. 22). Multiple embryos are created, even when a couple wishes to have only one child, to increase the chance of successful implantation (many attempts at implanting the embryos may be required before the woman becomes pregnant). Some couples may become pregnant on the first attempt, for others it may never happen. It is this process that results in there being spare embryos.

These leftover embryo’s will never be implanted, and therefore will never have a chance to develop. Currently, the law permits experimentation on these embryos, however there are several moral objections or arguments against the use of human embryos for research. The first of these, is the potentiality argument. The crux of this argument, is that it is wrong to experiment on human embryos because they hold the same status as any living human.

They have the potential to become a person, and they share the same genetic blueprint as they would have if they were allowed to develop into an adult human, so nothing should be done to prevent the embryo from developing into a human. To do so would be morally wrong (Great Britain Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1985, p. 61). Because this view holds that the embryo is a person from the moment of conception, its destruction is tantamount to murder (Mori, 1996, p. 161).

There are several difficulties with this argument. The first is that just because the embryo will become a human being eventually, it’s not a good enough reason to treat the embryo as if it already had become a person, in the same way, you would not put a seed in a vase before it had grown to become a flower, and you would not treat a person as if they were dead, just because some day they will be (Harris, 1983, p. 223).

Another problem with this argument, is that the unfertilised egg and sperm have just as much potential as an embryo. Several conditions are required for an embryo to develop into a human life. But the same can be said of the gametes from both sexes. If the view is taken that all embryos should be allowed to develop into human life, then it must also follow that the gametes should also be allowed to develop in the same way (ibid). Obviously, this would not be possible. Although the human embryo does consist of tissue that is undoubtedly human, no new human life begins at the moment of conception, it is just 1 step in a continuos process in the creation of human life, and therefore, it is premature to ascribe the newly fertilised embryo moral rights (ibid p. 224).

Another objection to embryo experimentation is the slippery slope argument. In this argument, IVF is not objected to in and of itself, but the prospect that it may lead to other unacceptable practices such as forms of embryo experimentation, means that it becomes unacceptable (Govier, 1982, p. 303). Many people are opposed to the idea of scientists tampering with human life, and such unacceptable practices could include human cloning, experimentation with human-animal hybrids, and implanting human embryos in animals such as pigs, monkeys, and sheep (Fisher, 1989, p.193-194).

The rationale for this argument is as follows. Embryo experimentation and fertilisation are used in the IVF process to diagnose infertility, and help infertile couples in their desire to have children. This could lead to other interventions, including genetic engineering children to have blonde hair and blue eyes, or for 2 deaf parents to conceive a deaf child, in accordance with the desires of the parents. After all, if it’s ok to use IVF to conceive a child, why not go a little further and make it so that the child in question has blonde hair, blue eyes, and an I.Q. of 150?

The problem with this argument, is that acceptance of one form of technology, doesn’t automatically result in acceptance of others (Liu, 1991, p. 52). If IVF is accepted, it doesn’t follow that cloning humans and implanting human embryos in pigs will shortly follow. These types of situations are unique, and their ethical permissibility is, or should be, judged not on the basis of technologies that preceded them, but on their own merits.

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