January 1995 XVI/5


Recently, a committee appointed to advise the National Institute of Health (NIH) in regard to research upon human embryos submitted its report. (1) The committee report states the following conclusions.

1) Funding research on human embryos with tax money is acceptable, but it should be subject to strict guidelines.

2) The embryo merits significant respect as a developing form of human life but this respect does not outweigh the potential value of embryo research.

3) Human embryos in the very early stages of development do not have the same moral status as infants and children.

4) Embryo research can make important contributions to a whole range of medical problems including birth defects and certain types of cancer.

5) Human embryo research should be limited to about 14 days, that is, until the embryo develops the "primal streak" which is the seminal formation of the central nervous system.

In sum, if the recommendations of the NIH committee are approved, researchers using federal funds will be allowed to fertilize human ova with human sperm with the sole purpose of submitting the resulting embryos to experimentations, intending to destroy them before they develop the "primal streak".


In the recent past, there have been several instances of research which violate the rights of human subjects. The Tuskeegee Project comes immediately to mind. As a result of the many abuses and aberrations in the field of research upon human subjects, some ethical norms have been developed and affirmed by the scientific community. (2) First of all, when making ethical judgments concerning research upon human subjects, it is necessary to distinguish between therapeutic and nontherapeutic research. Therapeutic research aims at the well-being of the human subjects in the research project. Nontherapeutic research aims at providing new knowledge for the benefit of others, and is not of benefit or value to the people in the research project. Secondly, no matter whether the research is therapeutic or nontherapeutic, human persons must not be enrolled in research projects unless informed consent is obtained.

A third principle concerns the risk of serious harm which may result from research. If therapeutic research involves the risk of serious harm then the subjects or their proxies may accept the risk of serious harm as an unintended effect of the therapeutic endeavor. However, if the research is nontherapeutic a person capable of giving informed consent may accept the risk, but a proxy cannot subject an incapacitated person to risk of serious harm. The role of the proxy is to protect the ward from harm. In a word, to expose an incapacitated person to serious harm for the interest of science or society is to use that person as a thing and to demean or abuse his or her human worth.


If we use the ethical norms for research agreed upon by the scientific community to evaluate the recommendations of the federal committee on embryo research, what conclusions may we draw?

First of all, the question arises, is the embryo a human subject? The NIH committee is ambivalent in this regard. The members maintain that the human embryo at early stages of development do not have the same moral status as infants and children but the committee does not state anything more definite. One committee member declared: "An embryo merits significant respect as a developing form of human life, but their respect does not outweigh the potential benefits of embryo research." Apparently, the committee is willing to admit that the embryo is human, in regard to its ontological being, but not human insofar as protection from harm is concerned. At best, this concept is confusing. A being either is or is not human. Just as a woman cannot be "a little bit pregnant," so an embryo cannot be a little bit human. If it is human, it deserves respect and protection simply because it is human.

The NIH committee seems to base the quality of being human upon visual appearance (the primal streak), or upon self-awareness. The constituent factor determining the presence of human life or personhood is not the physical appearance of a being, nor even self-awareness. Rather it is the presence of a genetic code which enables the human entity to function in an integrated manner. The genetic code is disposed to a whole set of remarkable capacities. Contrary to the expressed thinking of the committee, from the earliest stage of development, the one or two celled zygote does have integrated activity. The reason it develops the primal streak and other physical characteristics and eventually self-awareness, is because of its capacity for integrated human function in its earliest stages of life. When studying the same questions regarding the identity of the human embryo, a scientific commission in Australia stated: "No marker event (in the development of the embryo) carried such weight that different principles should apply to distinguish the fertilized ovum from that which all would agree is a human subject." (3) As a corollary of its study, the Australian commission rejected the distinction between an embryo and a pre-embryo.

The NIH committee seems intent to distinguish between a human being (physically developed, conscious, and self- aware) and developing human beings. No such distinction is logical. At all stages of human life the human entity is "developing." There is no stage of physical or psychic development which allows others to say: "Now you are a human being because you will not develop any further." Being a developing entity is essential for human life. Different stages of development do not establish whether or not a human being is a person capable of possessing rights. True, some early stages of development may require that conscious and self-aware persons defend the rights of those who are not conscious or self-aware, but that is the nature of human community.

Is the type of research upon embryos envisioned by the committee therapeutic or nontherapeutic? Clearly it is nontherapeutic because the embryos will be destroyed within about fourteen days of their generation. Indeed, even though they could develop into human beings with self-awareness, the embryos are generated with the intention of killing them at a very early age. Given the proper protection and nourishment, these embryos of their own accord would develop into fully mature human beings. If they were not so tragic, the words of the NIH committee would be comical. The committee states: "An embryo meets significant respect as a developing form of human life," yet they are willing to subject the embryos to any and all forms of nontherapeutic research and then be destroyed. One wonders how the embryos would be treated if they did not "merit significant respect as developing human life.

The unscientific and illogical ambiguities and equivocations of the committee can only be explained by the desire for new knowledge. Theoretically, this research "can make important contributions to a whole range of medical problems, including birth defects, certain types of cancer, new methods of contraception, and in vitro fertilization." Clearly, the committee falls into the trap of pragmatism as have other researchers in the past. According to the pragmatic credo, the end does justify the means; evil actions may be performed if the good seems to outweigh the evil. The heart of the problem seems to be that the panel doesn't realize the enormity of the evil that they are willing to tolerate in order to seek new knowledge. Once respect for individual human life is lost or devalued, all forms of degradation and exploitation follows logically in its wake.(4)


In a move deemed politically motivated by the chair of the panel, President Clinton barred federal funding for research upon embryos. (5) But he allowed federal funding for research upon embryos "left over" from IVF procedures. Ethically speaking, the source of funding is irrelevant. The significant ethical issue is the respect due to human life at early stages of development.

Kevin O'Rourke, OP


1. "Federal Panel Urges U.S. to Drop its Ban on Financing of Human Embryo Research," New York Times (September 27, 1994).

2. Encyclopedia of Bioethics Volume 4, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1978, pp. 1769-1773.

3. Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986.

4. Alex Capon, When Medicine Went Mad, Bioethics and the Holocaust, Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 1992.

5. Steven Muller, Wall Street Journal, (December 3, 1995) p.5.

© Kevin O'Rourke, O.P.