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Ethics of human embryo research debated

The use of human embryos for research is currently under debate in New Zealand.

Chairperson of the Interchurch Bioethics Council Dr Audrey Jarvis says there are two major questions to be answered. The first is whether there are circumstances in which it is acceptable to carry out research on human embryos, knowing that in the process the embryo will be destroyed?

“In considering this question, it is relevant to take into account the purpose of the intended research. This may be to produce stem cells, which can differentiate into the different types of cells found in the human body. There are potential benefits in the use of stem cells to repair damaged cells or tissue, perhaps even create organs to replace worn out body parts.

“We have to realize, however, that these achievements are in the future and have some risks. For example, multiplying stem cells may not be easy to control and may give rise to tumours. Other research may be directed at curing inherited diseases or other illnesses such as cancer, or to the understanding and treating of infertility.”

The second question is if such research is permissible, where should these embryos come from? They may have been created during the process of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to provide a child for an infertile couple, and are ‘surplus to requirements’.

Alternatively they could be created from donated eggs and sperm specifically in order to be used for research. Another possibility is that embryos will be created by a cloning technique, using a donated egg and DNA from an adult cell.

Our responses to these questions will depend on the value we place on human embryos, Audrey says.

“At one end of the spectrum is the concept that an embryo is created by God within an act of love, and therefore has a particular value due to its relationship with God and God’s purpose for it. Those who hold this belief generally will reject any artificial reproductive technologies and certainly will find research on embryos unacceptable.

“The argument for using embryos created specifically for research is that such an embryo is on a different life path. If an embryo is created by IVF for would-be parents, it is intended that it become a child, and so its life story is directed to this end.

“From conception it is already an object of love from its parents and to destroy it is ending the life of a potential human being. An embryo created for the purpose of research has not been on the path to become a child and so may be considered to have a different value.”

There are those who regard an embryo as simply a cluster of cells until it reaches a particular stage, perhaps implantation in the mother, perhaps ‘quickening’ when movement is felt, perhaps at birth when it can exist independently. For these people, research on embryos in the first few days after fertilisation would not be a problem.

Audrey says there are no simple answers to the questions raised by medical technology, in this case research on human embryos. In considering the embryo as a potential human being entitled to respect and mana, we are also constrained to remember that compassion is a Christian virtue, and that we need to take into account the possible relief of human pain and suffering which may result from embryonic research.

Whether or not we as Christians contribute to the debate, decisions must and will be made, and you are urged to think about the issues, and make submissions if you feel you are able to do this.

The Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) will release a discussion document early in December inviting responses from the general public, in preparation to their advising the Minister of Health regarding this issue.

Further information may be obtained from Toi Te Taiao: the Bioethics Council at www.bioethics.org.nz or the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) at www.newhealth.govt.org.nz.

You are also invited to communicate your ideas and concerns to the Interchurch Bioethics Council at jarvis.ab@xtra.co.nz.