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Human embryos, a material commodity

By Joe Santamaria - posted Thursday, 12 January 2006

The Lockhart Review Committee has released its final report to the Federal Parliament on its website (19/12/05). In 1972, Professor M.A. Jeeves, a neuroscientist, wrote an article on science and ethics and commented:

Since ethical principles are not logically derivable from scientific findings, any attempt to elevate science to the level of an ethical system, which must be believed or accepted, immediately opens itself to abuse in that it means that particular scientists claim to derive their ethical beliefs from their science and then set these forward as the ones that must be accepted by all people.

This can be done in several ways. The National Health and Medical Research Council encourages ongoing community debate on the cloning of human embryos for research purposes but recommends that researchers continue to have access to excess assisted reproductive technology (ART) embryos to continue research in these areas. There is no debate about the ethics of using such embryos for research purposes but there is a presumption that the community has accepted this state of affairs, that the ethical debate is no longer an issue.


Professor Alan Trounson opens his article in the Herald Sun (23/12/05) by calmly ignoring the moral status of the human zygote formed by somatic cell nuclear transfer. The Lockhart committee gives no moral status to the human embryo in the first 14 days after the human zygote has been formed and therefore its destruction in that period is accorded no moral significance.

In the fields of reproductive technology and biotechnology generally, the underlying ethical position of scientists around the world is based on utilitarianism.

A successful tactic of the scientific community is to appeal through the media and to present victims with severe physical disabilities who plead for such research to continue as their last chance of any hope of recovery from their crippling handicaps, even though there is no scientific evidence that embryonic stem cells can achieve such an outcome. Compassion becomes the key to ethical behaviour and opposition to embryo experimentation becomes a mark of insensitivity to human suffering.

James V. Schall has remarked that today’s ethical appeal to compassion as the focus of decision making is a feature of the modern corruption of the word “justice”. This new concept is an extension of the demands for social rights that have penetrated into virtually all fields of human society, so that if embryonic stem cells may improve my state of health, I have a right to have my wishes fulfilled by the justice system acting out of compassion for my suffering. But surely the virtue of justice would extend to the human embryo, to a more fundamental right for it to exist and to grow and not to be treated as a material commodity for the good of others.

This modern clamour for a host of human rights lends itself to a vague use of language, with no hierarchy of values that serve both the good of the individual and the common good of the community. This in turn allows unelected judges to apply ideological interpretations that impose a new set of community standards that create a new “morality”.

Science can add a great deal to our store of knowledge but it is not within the scope of its methodology to resolve ethical dilemmas, to determine or to assume how we should act ethically or morally. In commenting on scientific findings, scientists often introduce their own value judgments and reach conclusions or recommendations that can be validly contested by non-scientists, especially when they reflect on issues such as human rights, the moral status of members of the human species, the manipulation of public opinion and the distribution of public funds for the assertive promise of an advancement in clinical medicine.


Value judgments reflect the basic beliefs and creed of an individual and these are not derived solely from empirical studies. They are influenced by upbringing, philosophical reflection, behavioural preferences, career pathways, vested interests and social mores. This applies to theists and atheists alike. They cannot be tested for validity by scientific experiments or methodology. The conclusions drawn from scientific studies are often based (legitimately) on philosophical principles that provide an independent avenue to the acquisition of knowledge. However this aspect of scientific publications is open to distortion and deceit as data can be used selectively to support an underlying ideology or vested interest of the scientist.

It is highly doubtful if embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can ever be used in clinical medicine unless cloning is done using somatic cells of the patient (somatic cell nuclear transfer). All its claims for the treatment of any disease process are purely speculative. It is highly doubtful if such cloning can be done without a large bank of donor human ova which would then complicate the substantial problem of tissue rejection. There is no doubt that the treatment of a patient will be at a prohibitive cost.

It is known that cell lines established from such embryonic stem cells tend to undergo genetic drift or changes as successive populations are generated from the original cloned cell. It is known that such cells are prone to serious tumour formation. In the clinical situation, whether it be in clinical trials or treatment procedures, no such activities can be undertaken without the fully informed consent of the patient and institutional ethics committees would be hard put to approve their use.

These are ethical issues, and they are not resolved by the claim of scientists that all will be well under regulations written into legislation that allow them to experiment on human embryos, however they are obtained. It is also a distortion to suggest that those who oppose experimentation on human embryos are insensitive to the suffering of those with chronic disabilities who may show some response to stem cell therapy. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the use of adult stem cells in such cases but such information is obscured by the scientific lobbies for the use of ESCs and this evidence has been presented to the review committee.

The diversion of enormous amounts of public funds into research on human embryos is being justified on a clinical premise that is unfounded and a claim that the technology and its products will generate economic wealth for our nation. This is otherwise accurately known as the “commodification” of the human embryo and its cell lines and there is nothing to suggest that human cloning will not become the standard method of creating human embryos for commercial exploitation.

The review committee has summarily and scandalously dismissed the ethical questions that have been sharply highlighted in the majority of the submissions that they have received. Whether the submissions have arisen from an intuitive concept of human dignity or a clear understanding of the scientific evidence, the human embryo, however formed, is a member of the human species, the earliest stage of our human existence. It deserves the protection of the law and of international declarations.

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About the Author

Dr Joe Santamaria is a consultant physician, with postgraduate experience in haematology, public health and epidemiology. He was the foundation chairman of St. Vincent’s Bioethics Centre, Melbourne. Dr Santamaria is also interested in bioethics as a discipline and the public health issues associated with alcohol and drug abuse.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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