January 1989 X/5


Research upon human embryos is a reality. fa it an ethical practical Recently four different study groups have evaluated the practice. Analysis of these studies is informative in regard to contemporary ethical methodologies, The scientific study groups publishing reports are: a) Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (The Warnock Committee) in the United Kingdom. 1984; b) The Senate Select Committee on The Human Embryo Experimentation Bill, Australia, 1985; c) The Bioethics Summit Conference representing seven member countries of the Economic Summit Conference, 1987; d) A study prepared by the Ministry of Justice in West Germany. 1988.


The human embryo results from penetration of a mature ovum by a sperm, the chromosomes from male and female combining to new and unique genetic identity. Though it is possible to conduct research upon the embryo in any stage of development, the stage of development under discussion by the scientific study groups is the first 14 days of existence. Thus the study groups were concerned with research upon embryos which ate generated in vitro, and never introduced into a womb. At present, embryos generated in this manner may be sustained outside the womb for about 10-12 days. However, we can envision this time being extended indefinitely through the proper technology. The source of embryos for research, for the most part, would be "extra" embryos resulting from fertilization of multiple ova resulting from in vitro fertilization. However, the fertilization of ova with the express intent of using the developing embryo for research purposes is not unknown and is recommended by at least one study group.

The study groups found the distinction between therapeutic and nontherapeutic research most significant. If this distinction is applied to research involving human embryos, a therapeutic research on an embryo is carried out with the aim or object of acting in the best interests of the embryo which is the subject of the procedure (for example, correcting genetic defects).

Nontherapeutic experimentation does not directly benefit the individual embryo undergoing the procedure. Knowledge gained from the research may ultimately benefit future embryos by advancing the understanding of human generation or by improving medical therapy. Witnesses appearing before the study committees agreed that nontherapeutic experimentation on an embryo, at least for the present, is intrusive and destructive of that embryo,


There was no disagreement among the study groups in regard to therapeutic research. If the human and social future of the embryo is respected and curative or diagnostic results are intended, the research would be acceptable. At present, there does not seem to be any therapeutic research projects designed for embryos which will never be introduced into a womb.

In regard to nontherapeutic research however, there was great disagreement. The Australian study group declared: "The Committee concludes that the respect due to the embryo from the process of fertilization onwards requires its protection from destructive nontherapeutic experimentation," In Germany, the Ministry of Justice reached a like conclusion recommending legislation which would make it a criminal offense to engage in any research that could be considered harmful to a human embryo.

The United Kingdom study group recommended that nontherapeutic research be permitted up to 14 days from fertilization. The international committee recognized the "preciousness of the human embryo," but allowed nontherapeutic research if it were "regulated by appropriate guidelines administered by a competent authority."

Why the difference of ethical evaluation for nontherapeutic research upon human embryos? The difference does not rest in a radical disagreement over the nature of the human embryo, all groups accepting it as a separate living entity with genetic human identity. Nor is there disagreement in regard to the value of the knowledge which might be gained from this type of research. There is severe disagreement, however in regard to protecting the human embryo from harm and destruction. What rights of the embryo must be respected in face of the rights of the human community to scientific knowledge? In discussing this conflict of rights some groups use a utilitarian approach, emphasizing the good to be attained, rather than the good of the subject involved in the research. In this system the goal of ethical deliberation is to "balance rights;" no inalienable rights of the embryo being recognized. This history of utilitarianism indicates that it minimizes human worth and the value of the individual. Using this system of ethical evaluation, Dame Mary Warnock declared: "In a calculation of harms and benefits the very early embryo need not be counted."

Opposed to this method of ethical evaluation are systems which consider the human being worthy of respect and protection, even if knowledge or other goods must be sacrificed. According to this method of ethical evaluation some goods or rights are considered so basic and significant that they cannot be balanced with other rights not be sacrificed for other goods. The Helsinski Statement of the World Health Organization, in regard to the ethics of research, summed up this ethical approach when it declared: "Concern for the interests of the subject must always prevail over the interest of science end society."

The ethical theory which places the good of the patient or subject before the good of science or society is part of the heritage of medicine. When have you heard a physician or scientist whom you admire declare: "I don't care what happens to my patients or subjects, as long as we get some useful information."


Everything which is possible is not necessarily beneficial. When assessing benefit, we must be careful to respect the inalienable rights of individuals end not merely balance these rights with other goods.

Kevin O'Rourke, OP

© Kevin O'Rourke, O.P.