Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Karen Lebacqz’s argument for human embryonic stem cell research

Among the theologians and religious ethicists I surveyed on their views of human embryonic stem cell research, I found Karen Lebacqz's argument to be very unique and outstanding. Let's hear what she has to say...


Lebacqz, Karen. "Stem Cell Ethics: Lessons from Context." In Stem Cell Research: New Frontiers in Science and Ethics, edited by Nancy E. Snow, 85-99. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2003.

It is estimated that there are over one million early embryos (blastocysts) leftover worldwide from in vitro fertilization1. Usually, these embryos which are not implanted will be frozen. It is commonly agreed among IVF practitioners that after seven years in a frozen state, they are no longer "living."2 If the embryos that are used in stem cell research are from "surplus" embryos that will not be implanted and are therefore consigned to death, one might argue that it is more respectful of the value of their life to continue that life in new form by turning those embryos into stem cells rather than simply throwing them in an incinerator3. Indeed, in her paper "Stem Cell Ethics"4, Karen Lebacqz, Robert Gordon Sproul Professor of Theological Ethics at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, asserts that there is no reason why stem cell research should be opposed if IVF with its concomitant creation and destruction of embryos is accepted. She further suggests that unless IVF is either rejected completely or revised very substantially, it is inconsistent to accept IVF but refuse stem cell research. She builds her argument further in her article by examining two ethical principles.

First, she questions what it means to treat people with respect. While we generally think that it is not respectful to kill a person, there are circumstances where it is more respectful to do so. An example is a person caught in a burning building with no chance of escape. She suggests that it is more respectful for us to shoot the person than to let the person be burnt to death. Where there is no autonomy or no sentience, and the person's destiny is death under any circumstances, then direct killing is morally justified.

Second, she questions the issue of moral integrity. She cites an example of a twin who had to be separated or else both would die. She is convinced that to sit back and watch both twins die when one could be saved is a selfish act. It is like an actor who is more concerned with keeping his hands clean than saving the lives of others and this is a lack of moral integrity.

Based on these two principles, she puts forth the idea that since blastocyst has no sentience or autonomy and is destined to death, direct killing may be morally countenanced. Failure to do so may reflect moral squeamishness about our own innocence or complicity in evil5. Hence, destruction of blastocysts for stem cell research is morally permissible. However, she reminds us that her proposal is in the context that IVF is generally accepted by the public. She remarks that it is worse to permit IVF than to permit human embryonic stem cell (hES) research.

1. Rose M. Morgan, The Genetics Revolution: History, Fears and Future of a Life-Altering Science (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), 137.
2. Karen Lebacqz, "Stem Cell Ethics: Lessons from Context," in Stem Cell Research: New Frontiers in Science and Ethics, ed. Nancy E. Snow (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2003), 90.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 91.
5. Ibid., 96.

No comments: