Stem Cell Research and Moral Complicity

by Dennis M Sullivan, MD, MA

Professor of Biology, Cedarville University
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Human embryonic stem cells (hES cells), derived from unused frozen embryos “left over” from reproductive technologies, have the promise of curing a variety of human ailments. Because such cells can act as “starter” cells to grow new nerve tissue, heart muscle tissue, or glandular tissue, many scientists are excited about potential treatments or even cures for heart disease, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and many other disabling and deadly conditions.

Yet producing hES cells requires the destruction of the embryos that contain them, which many hold to be human persons with rights. The resulting public discussion over hES cell research has been divisive, given the ethical, philosophical, and theological importance of the debate.

Current U.S. policy permits private companies to engage in hES cell research, but prohibits federal funding (e.g., through the National Institutes of Health), except for 60 stem cell lines from embryos that had already been destroyed.[1] At issue are two major themes. First is the sanctity of human life argument, which holds that embryos are persons with rights. Second is the utilitarian rationale for the use of such embryos, since “they are going to be destroyed anyway.”

The first question has been much debated. Many people have fundamental objections to the destruction of embryos to obtain hES cells, since they believe that embryos are human persons, and thus have basic human rights.[2-8]

The utilitarian argument has not received as much attention, and is the focus of this discussion. If one assumes that frozen embryos are going to be discarded anyway, why not utilize them for research? Even if one is distressed by the destruction of an embryo, isn't it better if some good can be made to come from it? Note that this argument morally permits destructive embryo research even if one assumes their full personhood. The utilitarian argument seems to make some sense, and deserves a thoughtful response.

The following moral analogy should help to clarify what is really at stake here. For the sake of the discussion, let us assume that human embryos are persons, allowing us to focus exclusively on the utilitarian argument. Imagine the following ethical scenario:

  1. A six year-old girl is in a major car accident, and declared brain dead. Her loving parents anguish over the decision, but reluctantly agree to donate her liver. Mr. Smith has a son with a rare liver disease, who is the fortunate recipient. Is Smith wrong to accept the donated liver? Clearly not.
  2. Let us change the agent of the little girl’s death: A drunk driver caused the accident. Furthermore, the driver was the girl’s father. Does this change anything about the ethics of Smith accepting the liver transplant for his son? Not at all: Smith is not morally responsible for the circumstances that led to the girl’s death, and is still justified in accepting the donated liver for his son. (This does ignore the thorny issues of informed consent on the part of the donor’s parents.)
  3. Let us now change the manner of the girl’s death: The father, instead of being a drunk driver, is insane, and uses a handgun to shoot his daughter in the head. Does this change the moral calculus? Actually, no. Ignoring any legal ramifications of such a scenario, Smith is still not morally responsible for the circumstances that led to the girl’s death, and could justifiably accept the donated liver.
  4. Now let us change the agent of the girl’s death once more: Smith knows that the girl’s father is violently disposed towards his daughter, and that he plans to kill her. So Smith reasons, “He will kill her anyway, so my son may as well benefit from the girl’s liver.” So he therefore takes a gun and kills the girl himself. What do you think now? Can Smith morally justify his action? No, everything is now different. Smith is clearly on the other side of the moral fence. No reasonable person would argue that he was morally justified in doing this, even if he sincerely believed that the death of the little girl at the hands of her father is inevitable. We have definitely crossed a very clear ethical line.
  5. Let us now change the circumstances of her death in a different way: Smith decides not to kill the girl himself, but pays the father $10,000 to pull the trigger, so that his son may benefit. Does this help the matter, because Smith does not do the deed himself? Of course not. No reasonable person would argue that Smith is morally justified in doing this, even though he did not himself pull the trigger. Legally, he would be guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Morally, he is just as culpable.
  6. Now let us change the moral contract between Smith and the girl’s father: No money changes hands, but Smith pleads with the father to kill his daughter, saying, “Please kill your daughter for me. Her liver is my son’s only hope.” Can Smith get away with this morally? No, that doesn’t help either. No reasonable person would argue that Smith is justified in doing this. Legally, this would still be conspiracy. From an ethical standpoint, this manipulation of the scenario did nothing to improve the morality of Smith’s actions.
  7. Now let us make one final change in the scenario; let us change the age of the little girl: Instead of being six years old, she is an embryo. Her father is willing to destroy her to provide stem cells to treat Mr. Smith's son’s liver disease. Have we improved the morality of the situation by this change? If you have agreed with the analysis up until now, it seems clear that the father is behaving immorally, and Smith is just as morally culpable as the father if he accepts the father’s offer.

Note that the premises and the conclusions drawn follow directly from each other if we assume the personhood of an embryo. This directly addresses the argument that we should do the research because “they are going to be destroyed anyway.” The analogy relies on commonsense ideas of a shared moral complicity, to reach the conclusion that there is never a justification to destroy some persons to benefit others, no matter what their supposed inevitable fate. A utilitarian calculus used to justify destruction of “leftover” embryos violates any special status for such embryos, and directly violates basic principles of respect for human life.

As utilitarian arguments gain ascendancy over Christian ethics in our society, this must surely lead to a decline in the value that humans place on themselves, as children of a loving God. Respect for life demands foregoing practices that diminish human dignity and worth. Otherwise human beings may lose their identity as persons, made in the image of the Creator.

(Partial funding for this study was through a Cedarville University Faculty Scholarship Grant).


1. Bush, G.W., Bush Announces Position on Stem Cell Research, in Washington Post. 2001: Washington, DC.

2. Beckwith, F., From Personhood to Bodily Autonomy: The Shifting Legal Focus in the Abortion Debate, in Bioethics and the Future of Medicine, J. Kilner, N. Cameron, and D. Schiedermayer, Editors. 1995, William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids.

3. Allen, R.B., The Majesty of Man. 2000, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.

4. Cheshire, W.P., Toward a Common Language of Human Dignity. Ethics and Medicine, 2002. 18(2): p. 7-10.

5. Feinberg, J.S. and P.D. Feinberg, Ethics For a Brave New World. 1993, Wheaton: Crossway Books. 479.

6. Geisler, N.L., When Did I Begin? A Review Article. JETS, 1990. 33(4): p. 509-512.

7. Sullivan, D.M., The Conception View of Personhood: A Review. Ethics and Medicine, 2003. 19(1): p. 11-33.

8. Evans, R.W., The Moral Status of Embryos, in The Reproduction Revolution, J.F. Kilner, P.C. Cunningham, and W.D. Hager, Editors. 2000, William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids.

Posted 15 Feb 2006.

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Copyright 2006 by Dennis M Sullivan
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