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The Moral Case for Banning Destructive
Joe Kral, M.A. | 01 April 2021
Recently, it was announced that certain scientists wanted to extend the so-called “14-Day Rule”.[i] This rule, which is law in some countries, such as the United Kingdom, and voluntary in others, such as the United States, has been highly controversial. While it seemingly limits human embryonic research, it certainly does allow for destructive research to occur and essentially mandates that at the end of the fourteenth day, the embryonic child, be killed. Sadly, there are very few laws in the US protecting the human embryonic child from such destructive research.[ii]
In addition to scientists wanting to extend the "14-Day Rule," it has been announced that mouse embryos had been grown in an artificial womb.[iii] Scientists hope to grow human embryonic children up to five weeks gestation within an artificial womb environment.[iv] Again, these children would be destroyed. But how long would it be until scientists figure out how to carry the unborn child to five weeks in an artificial womb? How many embryonic children and fetal children will die to achieve this mark?
While much of the pro-life movement focuses on abortion-related legislation, it is important that these little ones not be forgotten. Twenty-six years ago, St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), about the need to protect embryonic children from the dangers of destructive research, “This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos.”[v] St. John Paul II is clear about the dignity of these embryonic children as well:
Although "one must uphold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but rather are directed to its healing, the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival," it must nonetheless be stated that the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person.[vi]
This means that the embryonic child cannot be a means to an end. The research must be aimed at healing or the improvement of the health of the embryonic child. Using the embryonic child to be strip-mined for cells or harmful research is contrary to the dignity of the child as well as the child's right to life.
Furthermore, St. John Paul II goes on to condemn the utilitarian idea that “extra” embryonic children produced from IVF clinics can be used for destructive research as well:
This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses-sometimes specifically "produced" for this purpose by in vitro fertilization-either to be used as "biological material" or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases. Even if carried out to help others, the killing of innocent human creatures constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.[vii]
From a moral perspective, it is important to note that protecting the embryonic child from destructive research is every bit as important as protecting the unborn child from abortion. It is not a good that a person must die to be used for another to live.
Specifically, how might a ban on destructive embryonic research help usher in a Culture of Life? Again, one can look at St. John Paul II's encyclical for guidance; specifically, section 73, which deals with the principle of incrementalism:
In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.[viii]
While the principle mentioned speaks of abortion-related legislation, there is no reason to think that it cannot be used in other areas of law where there is the same type of dilemma. In this particular case, the dilemma of fully protecting and recognizing the embryonic child as a human being who deserves the full protection of the law. Like abortion, the unborn child, whether the unborn child is in the womb or in a petri dish, has a massive disadvantage under the law. Unfortunately, in the US, at present, the embryonic child in the petri dish is merely viewed as property in many of the states and has no protection. With the advent of legalized elective abortion, what laws that recognized the unborn child's humanity were essentially rendered moot and ineffective. This evil law cannot be completely abrogated, as mentioned by St. John Paul II.
The first step of the principle is to recognize what harm is being limited, and in this particular case, it would be the use of embryonic children for destructive research. The overall harm, the ability to treat the embryonic child as mere property, is limited by this type of legislation. It would seem that it has the potential to stop the research and potentially save the lives of these children in some circumstances as well. For example, it is a well-known fact that many IVF clinics initiate consent contracts with their patients that include stipulations that "extra" or "unused" embryos can be donated for research purposes.[ix] It seems some parents would rather have their children be donated for utilitarian purposes of research, thinking that at least these embryos will somehow benefit humanity. If legislation is passed and enacted into law that prohibits destructive research on human embryonic children, this practice would end. Parents would be forced to commit to the remaining three options, such as keeping the embryos cryopreserved, donating them for adoption, or having the IVF clinic destroy them. However, it seems like most parents simply do not want to have their children destroyed by IVF clinics. This would help explain why there are so many frozen embryonic children.[x] The law would teach the parents that these little ones are not mere property to be used in medical experiments and research. But rather, these human children have rights and are protected by the law from destructive research.
This last point gets into the second part of the principle of incrementalism, how does legislation to ban destructive embryonic research help public opinion move away from a general acceptance of the evil law? If parents begin to understand that they have legal responsibilities and thus moral responsibilities, they can begin to see the dignity of their embryonic children. As it stands now, it is difficult in the vast majority of states for couples undergoing IVF to see the embryonic child more than a mere clump of cells. In many ways, like the abortion industry, the IVF industry does not humanize the early stage embryonic child. Terms such as “pre-embryo” and “specimen” are used specifically in a way to desensitize the parents to their children, especially since the law does not see them as human persons. By taking away the option to use IVF embryonic children for destructive research purposes, not only do parents of IVF embryonic children begin to see using human beings at their earliest stages of their existence as mere research material is immoral but using any human being at any stage of development for mere research material is inherently wrong. Again, this applies to the scientific and medical community as well. The ability to create embryonic children as mere resources to be mined has stopped, and they will no longer receive any IVF embryonic children either. In essence, the legislation has made the strong stipulation that if it is enacted and enforced, these small human beings cannot be used in an undignified way for human beings. They cannot be acted upon that takes away their right to life. When enacted, it shows to the whole of the state that even the tiniest of human beings are not mere objects to be used for an end, even if those ends are noble such as cures for diseases, that each human being has value.
In this way, these initiatives, if they become law, can help usher in a Culture of Life. Pro-Life organizations that work on legislation desperately need to do more to help protect embryonic children under the law. It is an area that has not been well-legislated and, in some ways, can be argued has been largely ignored. St. John Paul II, through Evangelium Vitae, still pleads to help protect these little ones. Now is the time to show that life should be protected even at its earliest stages of life.
[i] Regalado, Antonio, “Scientists Plan To Drop The 14 Day Embryo Rule, A Key Limit On Stem Cell Research”, MIT Technology Review, March 16, 2021. https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/03/16/1020879/scientists-14-day-limit-stem-cell-human-embryo-research/. Retrieved on March 29, 2021.
[ii] See https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/stem-cell-research/current-state-laws-against-human-embryo-research. Retrieved on March 30, 2021.
[iii] Delbert, Caroline, “Scientists Grew A Mouse Embryo Outside The Womb. Are Humans Next?”, Popular Mechanics, March 18, 2021. https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a35876748/scientists-grow-mouse-embryo-outside-womb-are-humans-next/. Retrieved on March 29, 2021.
[v] St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 63.
[viii] Ibid, no. 73.
[ix] See https://www.verywellfamily.com/extra-embryos-after-ivf-what-are-your-options-1960215. Retrieved March 30, 2021.
[x] McKeown, Jonah, “At Fertility Clinics, Abandoned Human Embryos Could Number In The Millions," Catholic News Agency, August 13, 2019. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/at-fertility-clinics-abandoned-human-embryos-could-number-in-the-millions-20719. Retrieved March 30, 2021.
Joe Kral, M.A.
President, Society of St. Sebastian
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Bioethics and Law & Culture