How Much is an Embryo Worth?

Imagine one day your spouse tells you, I could see you three different ways. First, you are someone I see as equal to me. Second, I could view you as a clump of cells. Or third, you are someone who is worthy of my respect but not in the same fashion as I respect others who are just like me. I imagine your response would be similar to mine, and perhaps similar to millions around the world. Option two would be met with a chilly response. Option three would banish you to the living room couch if not result in your being thrown out the door for good! Option one would be the only acceptable view for allowing a healthy relationship.

This is exactly what the U.K. House of Commons select committee on science and technology did when it issued its report last week on artificial reproductive technologies. The committee began by examining three views on the human embryo. First, the embryo could be viewed as a person. Second, it could be viewed as a mere collection of cells or third, the gradualists approach, taking the view that the human embryo is worthy of respect but is not fully human. The select committee chose the third view on which to base their principles and values on the appropriate uses of artificial reproductive technologies. If the committee had taken the view the embryo is a person this would have obviously limited the various reproductive technologies and their uses for sex selection, for creating designer children and for the creation of human/animal hybrid embryos. It would have killed the entire debate over therapeutic or reproductive cloning. How could we boldly claim these embryos as members of the human family and then freeze them, test them and discard them? We wouldn’t be able to ‘grade’ them to be sure the infertile mother is implanted only with the ‘good’ ones. Classifying an early embryo as merely a collection of cells is an oversimplification of a very complex process. These mere collections of cells are in fact complex biological systems, dividing, organizing and orchestrating a unique new human being. An artificial interruption during any phase of life’s continuum can be harmful if not fatal to the developing embryo. Because of advances in technology (especially ultrasound), no one is so bold as to say the human embryo is nothing; not any more. The view that the committee did take was, that the embryo is worthy of respect but is not fully human. I find this to be an odd, if not an all together illogical view. If the embryo is worthy of respect then what does that respect look like? What does this respect get you? What does this respect protect you from? The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (the UK regulatory body) concerns itself only when there is evidence of harm to the children who will be born. Previously guided by the precautionary principle, the committee suggested there is positive evidence there is no harm to children produced through artificial reproductive technologies, so let reproductive freedom reign. But by what definition will harm be determined? And is it too early to conclude that there is no harm to these children? After all, many of these children are still children who have yet to grow up and understand their genesis. Would it not be harmful growing up knowing your sex was chosen? Or you were chosen because you were a genetic repair kit for a sick sibling? Perhaps you were intentionally created with a characteristic that your parents wanted you to have and that is the basis for your being chosen from the others.

Actually, what the select committee did was uphold their most important value, the principle of the individual’s reproductive freedom, over and above any harm to the children these technologies make. The select committee paved the way for reproductive selection. Make way for the new eugenics, where civilized societies like the U.K. get to decide what the next generation looks like, or doesn’t look like. If that isn’t harmful then I don’t know what is.