Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Respecting What We Destroy

By Michael J. Meyer and Lawrence J. Nelson

When Governor Davis signed a bill this week authorizing stem cell research in California, he set the stage for possible conflict with the federal government, including President Bush who prefers a far more restrictive approach to the use of human embryos. Behind this polarized controversy, too often, lurk false absolutes that prevent good public policy decisions.

The first false absolute is that it's always morally wrong to destroy human embryos, because extracorporeal human embryos (that is, embryos existing outside the human body) have the same moral status as human persons. The other unsound absolute is that it's in no way whatsoever morally problematic to destroy embryos, because they have no moral worth at all; in short, destroying embryos is morally trivial.

Fortunately, an alternative moral view to these two problematic positions exists. On this middle view, human embryos should be recognized as having modest moral worth. Consequently we must have serious reasons to destroy them, and in such a case we must show respect for them when we destroy them.

A classic example of such a view is seen in Native American hunting cultures, like the Cree or the Micmac, when the hunters express genuine respect for the animals they destroy. This expression of respect can vary from apologizing to the animal before killing it to avoiding any waste associated with its use.

Often the killing itself, or the eating or the later burying of the animal's remains, was also done in a way that sincerely demonstrated this respect. Combining such respect with the intent to destroy is neither an ethical paradox nor a sign of hypocrisy. Instead these people knew both that they had good reasons to kill animals but also that doing so was not morally trivial.

Closer to home is the deferential treatment shown to human cadavers in medical schools. Respect is shown to the cadavers that will be dissected and destroyed by, for one, holding memorial services prior to burial or cremation of these human remains. The aim here is the recognition that even the dead human body is worthy of respect in spite of our justifiable destruction of it.

The importance of such respect is only highlighted by the moral outrage generated by recent stories where deplorable treatment has been shown to cadavers. In short, we should genuinely respect a cadaver even while destroying it.

What does this way of avoiding the familiar moral absolutes mean for embryos that could be used for therapeutic purposes? As destroying human embryos is neither tantamount to murder nor morally without cost, then destroying them in vital cases of therapeutic cloning can be justified. But it is only justified when done in a way respectful of the loss of a human entity with moral value. Such respectful destruction also acknowledges some of the genuine ethical concerns of those who believe this destruction is morally very serious.

Instead of banning therapeutic cloning or accepting just any use of embryos, we suggest, for starters, adopting the following practices. Scientists should handle embryos with great respect and, as with cadavers, this should never be an empty or insincere gesture. This display of moral consideration should include acquiring only the minimum number of embryos required for research and disposing of their remains in a genuinely respectful way.

Society should also avoid allowing human embryos to be treated as property by outlawing the buying and selling of them. Sometimes we simply must openly acknowledge that actions we are justified in doing also have some very real moral costs.

While extracorporeal human embryos do not have the same moral status as born human beings, there are serious reasons to accord them some modest moral status. As we gain experience working with embryos, the social rituals of respect for those we destroy in the practice of therapeutic cloning can be further developed. In this way our scientific progress need not require a hardening of our hearts.

Michael J. Meyer and Lawrence J. Nelson are faculty in the Department of Philosophy and scholars of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Copyright, Michael Meyer and Lawrence Nelson 2002

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