Human Fertilisation and Embryology

A further argument against the use of human embryos is that because they cannot give consent, no experiments should be conducted on them which could result in their harm or death (Great Britain Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1985, p. 61).  In this argument , embryos are seen as holding the same moral status and right to life as a human child or adult. But there is one major difficulty with this argument.

Human tissue, from many sources is used to benefit others including in organ transplants, blood transfusions, and bone marrow transplants. For an adult or child to donate their tissues, their consent must be obtained first. However, in the case of organ transplant after death, when the individual is not alive to give consent (like the human embryo), consent can be obtained from the next-of-kin (Harris, 1983, p. 228). If consent can be accepted from the next-of-kin of a deceased person for these procedures, then consent should also be accepted from parents of embryos for donation of their tissues to help others, including subsequent born individuals.

The arguments against human embryo research have not really made a substantial case as to why embryo experimentation should not be permitted. Claims regarding the moral status of the embryo and its right to life have not been upheld, so it is not morally impermissible to conduct research on these embryos that will result in their destruction. The argument that these experiments will lead to acceptance of experiments on cloning, hybrids, and implantation of human embryos in animals was not a strong one. And the claim that no research should be conducted on embryos without their consent, has collapsed.

At this time, there are many benefits to experimentation on human embryos. Embryo experimentation is used to learn about the earliest stages of human development, to diagnose infertility, for developing improved detection and treatment of diseases like cancer, as well as the development of detection and treatment procedures for those afflicted by genetic diseases (Fisher, 1989, p. 194). Currently, a woman can have eggs removed from her ovaries, fertilised by her husband, and then frozen for future use, perhaps at a time when career considerations permit it. This can be of benefit to both parents and children.

Because eggs are collected and fertilised when the woman is younger, the risk of giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome is decreased, compared to the risks associated with natural or in vivo pregnancies in older women (35 – 45 years old). It could also be possible to test the embryos for genetic diseases (e.g. Tay-Sachs) before freezing for implantation at a later time. It’s not unreasonable to assume the quality of life for an individual would be improved if they were not born with Tay-Sachs, compared with an individual who was. So, if useful information and treatments can be obtained for future generations via human embryo experimentation, then this research should be permitted.

Embryo experimentation is also a vital part of the continued improvement and success of assisted reproduction techniques like IVF (Shenfield, 2002, p. 150). A ban on embryo research, if imposed, would prevent any further advances in these techniques, as well as in the areas mentioned above. It is true that the destruction of embryos would cease with a ban on research, but these spare embryos created in the IVF process were never going to be implanted, so will never have the chance to develop, with or without a ban on embryo research.

Without a ban, at least these embryos can be used to help future generations of people. After all, the embryo knows nothing about what happens to it, so what benefit is there to halting embryo research, and leaving these embryos to be destroyed (effectively wasted) without being experimented on? If we can help future generations of people by learning as much as we can through embryo research, and therefore improving quality of life and preventing suffering and pain, then there is no reason why a ban on techniques that makes this possible, should be imposed.


Fisher, Anthony (1989). I.V.F. The Critical Issues, Melbourne, Collins Dove, p.22, 193-194.

Govier, Trudy (1982). “What’s Wrong with Slippery Slope Arguments?”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 12, p.303.

Great Britain Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1985). A Question of life : the Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology , Oxford, Blackwell, p.61.

Grobstein, Clifford (1982). “The Moral Uses of ‘Spare’ Embryos”, in What Price Parenthood? Ethics and Assisted Reproduction edited by C.S. Campbell, Aldershot, Dartmouth, pp. 20-21.

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