Methods of producing human embryos for research, including cloning and in vitro fertilization (IVF), have been the focus of political debate after the Bush administration restricted research from using federal funds for some types of research.
Bush decided last year to limit federal funding to about six dozen already-existing human stem cell lines, which are derived from human embryos, after opponents convinced Bush that harvesting the cells was unethical.
A Senate panel later agreed to a ban on reproductive cloning—cloning solely for the purpose of producing offspring—in August of last year.
The Senate ban served as a starting point for Sandel’s reasoning.
“This leads to the controversial issue of whether we can ban reproductive cloning without at the same time taking up the issue of banning therapeutic or research cloning,” said Sandel in a speech at the Kennedy School of Government.
Sandel constructed his argument in carefully structured pieces involving a series of related questions about the morality of stem cell research in different cases, eventually concluding that such research should be regulated by licensing requirements and other restrictions.
Sandel first explained that a week-old embryo, or blastocyst, is killed when stem cells—embryonic cells that can be developed into any kind of tissue—are extracted from it.
In his lecture, Sandel used the approach of moral analogy, asking, “How does a stem cell cloning stand morally when compared to several analogous practices?”
He also cited the moral status of the embryo as an important factor in the resolution of the argument.
Sandel said that there were two main categories of stem cells used in current research, those from embryos cloned for research and those from natural embryos.
He subdivided natural embryos into two categories, those specifically created for research and spare embryos left over from IVF treatment clinics. Citing the doctrine of double effect, however, Sandel said the two cases of natural embryos “all stand and fall together,” as spare embryos will die no matter what.
“Stem cell research for IVF spares and embryos created for research fall on the same moral level,” he said, adding that the next logical step in the argument is to establish the moral status of the embryo as a person, a thing, or something in between.
“But the moral universe cannot be divided in binary terms,” he said. “We must not insist on the all-or-nothing ethics that rely strictly on the respect of personhood. Instead we must cultivate an appreciation for life as a gift.”
Sandel concluded that the merits of stem cell research in finding cures for disease carries more moral weight than the desire of parents to have children through IVF therapies.
He argued that if the government does not question IVF use of embryos, then the possible curing of disease is a valuable cause for the carefully regulated use of embryos.
Audience member Daniel A. Zlotoff ’05 said Sandel’s lecture “gave us a lot to think about.”
“The unbelievable pace of biological research forces us to carefully examine these sensitive issues,” Zlotoff said.