Pushing through the ethical thicket

Date Published:

Apr 2, 2005


With stem cell legislation pending on Beacon Hill, proponents and opponents have taken to the airwaves, as lawmakers and citizens struggle to think their way through the ethical and scientific thicket. In Massachusetts, the real debate is not about stem cell research as such, but about whether scientists should be allowed to use cloning techniques to create embryos for stem cell research.

The bills passed this week by the Legislature would permit stem cell cloning; Governor Mitt Romney would ban it. While much of the discussion has focused on scientific complexities, the debate is at heart about ethics.

There are two main objections to cloning embryos for stem cell research—the "right-to-life" objection, and the "brave new world" objection.

The right-to-life objection regards the embryo as inviolable, as morally equivalent to a fully developed human being. Since extracting stem cells from the blastocyst (the cluster of cells that comprise the early embryo) destroys it, those who consider the embryo a person regard such research as the taking of a human life.

The brave new world objection worries less about the embryo than about where our new scientific powers may take us. It fears that allowing scientists to use cloning techniques for stem cell research will lead us down a slippery slope to dehumanizing practices such as cloning human babies or growing fetuses in the lab for spare parts.

How persuasive are these objections? The right-to-life objection raises hard questions about the origins and sanctity of human life. But it is important to notice that the right-to-life question is not really at issue in the debate between Romney and the Legislature.

At first glance, Romney's opposition to stem cell cloning seems to be based on the idea that the embryo is inviolable and should never be destroyed for the sake of science. The principle at stake is that "no life should be exploited for the benefit of another," Romney wrote in explaining his opposition to the stem cell bill. "Every human being has inalienable rights, and first among them is life."

But this principle is too broad for Romney's position. For if he believes that embryos are human beings with inalienable rights, he should oppose all embryonic stem cell research, not only research on cloned embryos. If extracting stem cells from a blastocyst is morally equivalent to yanking organs from a baby, then it is abhorrent no matter how the embryo came into being.

But Romney favors stem cell research on embryos left over from fertility clinics, provided the parents consent. Given the rigors and uncertainties of in-vitro fertilization, most fertility clinics create more fertilized eggs than are ultimately implanted. The "spare" or "surplus" embryos are typically frozen and ultimately discarded. Some argue that, even if embryos are persons with inalienable rights, those already doomed might as well be used for stem cell research.

As Romney reasoned in a radio ad that aired this week, "These embryos would otherwise be destroyed."

The doomed embryo argument seems to offer Romney the distinction he wants: It is ethical to sacrifice surplus embryos that will die anyway, but deplorable to create embryos for the sake of research. But the distinction does not hold up, because it evades the question whether the surplus embryos should be created in the first place. The fact that US fertility clinics are allowed to create and discard excess embryos is as much a policy choice as whether to permit cloning for stem cell research.

If Romney believes that embryos are persons, he should condemn the creation and destruction of excess embryos in fertility clinics as vigorously as he is opposing stem cell cloning. If, on the other hand, he believes the creation and sacrifice of embryos in fertility clinics is morally acceptable, it's not clear why he doesn't consider the creation and sacrifice of embryos for stem cell research also acceptable. After all, both practices serve worthy ends; in fact, curing diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's is at least as important as treating infertility.

There is nothing inconsistent in a principled right-to-life position that opposes all stem cell research and all fertility treatments that create and discard excess embryos.

But Romney can't have it both ways. He cannot oppose stem cell cloning on the grounds that it violates the embryo's inalienable right to life and at the same time defend fertility treatments that create surplus embryos and stem cell research that uses them.

In the face of this difficulty, Romney might retreat to the brave new world objection. Permitting scientists to use cloning techniques for stem cell research, he might argue, will lead down a slippery slope of exploitation and abuse—therapeutic cloning today, cloned human babies tomorrow.

The danger that embryo research will lead to exploitation and abuse is worth taking seriously. But sensible regulations can prevent our sliding down the slippery slope.

Rather than ban cloning for stem cell research, the governor should join the Legislature in banning human reproductive cloning, limiting the length of time that research embryos can be grown in the lab, and restricting the commodification of eggs to prevent the exploitation of women.

Such regulations are the friend, not the foe, of responsible science. They can enable us to redeem the promise of biomedical advance while saving us from slouching toward a Brave New World.


Michael J. Sandel teaches political philosophy as a professor of government at Harvard University. He is a member of the Weatherhead Center's Executive Committee.