A discussion of the federal ban on human embryo research
March 14, 1997
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in this forum:
Does this research place the role of God in question? Doesn't the benefits of embryo research outweigh any harm to the embryos? Does embryos have "human rights"? Should their be exceptions to the Congressional ban on human embryo research? Why did Congress overrule an NIH panel when they banned human embryo research? Additional Comments from Viewers.
March 10, 1997: Dr. Neal First of the University of Wisconsin and Dr. John Fletcher of the University of Virginia answer your questions about cloning.
February 24, 1997:
A background report on the cloning of sheep in Scotland.
February 24, 1997:
A technical discussion on the science of genetic engineering.
February 24, 1997:
A discussion on the ethics of genetic engineering and cloning mammals.
April 3, 1996:
Fred De Sam Lazaro reports on scientific advances in genetic research and the ethical questions they raise.
The Genetics and Public Issues Program at The National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR) discusses cloning.
Discussion of Ethics and Social Issues in Gene Research at the Human Genome Project.
Browse the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics home page.
The Online NewsHour editors ask:
Much of the controversy surrounding human embryo research involves the time at which people believe an embryo begins possessing "human rights." Do you believe embryos have human rights at the moment of conception?
Richard Doerflinger, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, responds:
Yes, I think members of the human species at every stage deserve respect. Even the chief scientist advising the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel on modern embryology testified that human development is a continuum from the moment when the nuclei of sperm and egg combine in the new embryo.
Interestingly, even the panel's own final report described the human embryo as "a developing form of human life." But it endorsed a theory that implies that some human beings -- including some newborns, comatose adults, etc. -- do not necessarily deserve human rights. The panel relied here on an article by one of its members, Ronald Green, that proclaimed a "Copernican revolution" in our understanding of human personhood. He argues that there is no biological feature that gives anyone the right to be called a person -- rather, the personhood of each kind of human being should be judged by the rational adults of society. The criterion to use here would be one of enlightened self-interest: Is this human being enough like me that a failure to grant personhood will endanger me? Is he or she enough unlike me that I can subject him or her to lethal experiments to benefit other persons?
I find it interesting that in order to establish that human embryos have no rights, the panel had to conclude in principle that lots of other human beings don't have them either.
Dr. Mark Hughes responds:
When an embryo becomes a person with "human rights" is probably the most controversial debate of our time. It is an issue that has perplexed the wisest philosophers and the average citizen. Americans hold widely different views on this question and they are based on deeply held religious and ethical beliefs. In our pluralistic society, where it is difficult to obtain consensus on almost any issue, public policy must represent an effort to arrive at a reasonable accommodation to these diverse interests. Even constitutional reasoning acknowledges the importance of diverse but deeply held views. We cannot focus on a single criterion of personhood. When human rights and protectability commence it is not an all-or-nothing matter. At this early stage of development (before 14 days) the embryo does not have human form or genetic uniqueness. It is a growing collection of cells which can divide into two and naturally produce identical twins. It is unable to survive outside of the womb, does not have any organ structures including even a primitive brain and it has no degree cognitive development. After conception following intercourse some 60 percent of human embryos are discarded by nature at this stage of development, before the mother ever realizes that she was pregnant. It would be difficult for society to ascribe "rights" to something that has such a high natural mortality.
I believe that the human embryo is extremely precious and deserving of our profound respect because of its enormous potential. Both its existence and status rest in the moral belief of the couple from whom it came.