The Moral Status of Embryonic Stem Cells
A necessary assumption for accepting the use-derivation distinction is that embryonic stem cells are not themselves embryos, nor their moral equivalents. If they were, then ‘merely’ using embryonic stem cells in research would be tantamount to destructive embryo research, which defenders of the use-derivation distinction reject.
Embryonic stem cells are not embryos
That embryonic stem cells are not embryos, or their moral equivalents, is typically taken for granted; it is not normally explicitly stated. In the US, however, the explicit claim that embryonic stem cells are not embryos has played a crucial role in the development of federal stem cell policy regarding embryonic stem cell research. In the US, restrictions on research using embryos are largely confined to federal funding limitations. Federal support for research involving the destruction of human embryos has been banned since the 1970s. An attempt by President Clinton to partly remove the ban and allow federal funding of research using discarded embryos was blocked when, in 1995 Congress passed a bill along with a rider called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. This amendment prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from using federal money for research ‘in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than allowed for research on foetuses in utero’.1 HHS funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary agency of the government responsible for biomedical and health-related
Congress, 1.1995 H. R. 2127; 1404 H. R. 2127. C. o. A. House of Representatives (1995).
research. Thus, since the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was passed, research that may harm embryos has not been federally funded. When the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was written in 1995, it was not introduced with human embryonic stem cell research in mind, as no such research had yet been done. James Thomson’s laboratory first reported the isolation of embryonic stem cells from human embryos in 1998. This research was supported by private money. In 1999, in an attempt to enable federal funding for at least some embryonic stem cell research, the General Counsel of HHS, Harriet Rabb, wrote in a legal opinion that the restrictions of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment ‘would not apply to research utilizing human pluripotent stem cells because such cells are not a human embryo within the statutory definition’. Rabb claimed that ‘a human embryo, as that term is virtually universally understood, has the potential to develop in the normal course of events into a living human being’, and that pluripotent stem cells do not have this capacity. Rabb concluded that federal funding involving research using stem cells derived from embryos was ‘lawful, so long as private funds were used to derive the cells from the embryos’. Rabb thus introduced the use- derivation distinction. It was subsequently accepted, though with different qualifications, by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. No federal money would be used to support the derivation of embryonic stem cells, as that would violate the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. However, federal money could be used, under certain conditions, for research using embryonic stem cells derived with private money, or abroad.
Let us now consider the arguments underlying the claim that embryonic stem cells are not embryos. Rabb’s first argument, that embryonic stem cells are not embryos because they are not embryos within the statutory definition, though legally important, is not helpful for determining whether embryonic stem cells are actually embryos, or their moral equivalents. It does not follow from the fact that embryonic stem cells are not included within the legal definition of an embryo that they should not be included. Even if embryonic stem cells are not legally embryos they might still be embryos from a biological point of view, or they might have the same moral status as embryos. It may turn out, for example, that the moral status of embryonic stem cells is equal or very similar to that of embryos, and this could provide a reason to include them in the legal definition of an embryo. Before the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep, an embryo-like organism created through cloning was not part of any definition of an embryo. But after ethical debate it was determined that we have good reason to include such an organism in the legal definition of an embryo. Many agreed that an embryo-like cell or cluster of cells produced through cloning has the same morally relevant characteristics, and thus the same moral status, as an embryo resulting from the fusion of a sperm cell and an oocyte. Perhaps we may also conclude after ethical debate that embryonic stem cells share the morally relevant characteristics of an embryo, and therefore should legally be considered an embryo. A good place to start such an ethical debate is Rabb’s second argument in defence of the claim that embryonic stem cells are not embryos. Rabb states that, unlike embryos, embryonic stem cells lack the potential to develop, in the normal course of events, into a living human being. As mentioned in Chapters 1 and 2, it is very common to accord a significant moral status to the embryo in virtue of its potential to develop into a person, or in virtue of a valuable future that this potential makes possible.3 The argument underlying the claim that the embryo derives its significant moral status from this potential is generally referred to as ‘the potentiality argument’. In the next section, I argue that if the potentiality argument in defence of the embryo’s significant moral status is correct, then we may also have to accord a significant moral status to embryonic stem cells, as there is reason to believe that they too have the potential to develop into persons. If embryonic stem cells could be regarded as potential persons, opponents of the derivation of embryonic stem cells who adhere to the potentiality argument are faced with an interesting dilemma: they must either treat embryonic stem cells as morally significant entities worthy of protection and thus oppose the use of embryonic stem cells, or admit that early embryos do not derive their significant moral status from the potential they possess. Either way, unless they can find another convincing reason to accord a significant moral status to the embryo, they will have to reject the use-derivation distinction.
Don Marquis, ‘Why Abortion is Immoral’, Journal of Philosophy, 86 (1989), 183-202.
-  Harriet S. Rabb, letter to H. Varmus (NIH), ‘Federal Funding for Research InvolvingHuman Pluripotent Stem Cells’ (General Council, Washington, DC, 15 Jan. 1999).