In an Oakland County Circuit Court, there is a custody dispute over frozen embryos created by a Michigan couple. According to the Associated Press, Gloria Karungi wants to have another child with embryos created by her and Ronaldlee Ejalu for the purpose of providing a cure for their daughter, who has sickle cell anemia.
Essentially, Karungi wishes to use the pluripotent cells from the embryo to cure sickle cell anemia which is a condition where abnormal sickle-shaped red blood cells are unable to carry adequate oxygen throughout the body.
Because embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, they are able to differentiate into all derivatives of the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, endoderm, and mesoderm. In other words, they can develop into each of the more than 200 cell types of the body as long as they are specified to do so.
As compared to multipotent cells, which can only produce a limited number of cell types, pluripotent cells have the capability of potentially treating blood and immune system genetic diseases due to their ability to propagate indefinitely.
In this case, Karungi wants to use the stem cells from the embryos, which could be as many as ten according to Ejalu’s lawyer Weberman, in order to attempt to cure her daughter’s disease. Though using these cells to potentially cure their daughter may seem to be an apparent good, the morality of the action is dependent upon whether an embryo is a human or not.
If the embryo is human, then the life of the daughter should not and cannot be valued over the life of the frozen embryo. However, if the embryo is merely property, then it would be both just and prudent to use the pluripotent embryonic cells to save the life of their daughter.
According to a recent 2006 publication in Human Reproduction, a human embryo is biologically-defined as an “entity created by the fertilization of a human oocyte by a human sperm.” In other words, in order for an embryo to be created, a couple must either have sex or use in-vitro fertilization. In both cases, human life is created. Furthermore, at fertilization, the entire genetic makeup of a unique human being is formed, including sex, eye color, and other traits.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just released their 2018-2022 plan, which unequivocally states life begins at conception and deserves protection. In the introduction it says, “HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”
In the case of Karungi, she wants to complete a frozen embryo transfer and subsequently take stem cells from the umbilical cord to cure their daughter. In the frozen embryo transfer, the frozen embryos from a previous IVF or donor cycle are thawed and then transferred back into the woman’s uterus.
This would likely result in the destruction of embryos either during the initial IVF or during the FET. However, if embryos are not human life, and merely property, their destruction would not matter.
Embryos are in fact human, and therefore have intrinsic value which is not dependent on their environment, size, level of development, or dependency. Humans are valuable because we share a common nature, not because of some capacity which might come and go during the course of our lifetimes. For Christians, we believe the dignity of the human person is rooted in our creation in the image and likeness of God.
This proposal of using pluripotent embryonic stem cells to cure a disease is unethical because it violates a central tenet of all civilized code: it approves of doing harm to a member of the human species for the sake of potential benefit to another human being.
The embryos destroyed in the process of frozen embryo transfer are at the same stage of development as embryos in the womb. The only difference between these two instances is a matter of environment. Environment does not determine personhood.
The Principle of Double Effect comes into play in this circumstance. It states by having a potential risk we will have a good effect. In this case, the good effect would be the potential benefit of saving their daughter’s life, while the potential risk would be the destruction of human life. There is an ethical dilemma. It is morally permissible to perform such an action if four conditions are met:
- The action itself is morally neutral or morally good.
- The bad effect is not the means by which the good effect is achieved.
- The motive must be the achievement of the good effect only.
- The good effect is at least equivalent in importance to the bad effect.
The use of pluripotent embryonic stem cells for the purpose of curing disease is not morally permissible. The good end does not justify the immoral means. Every person, regardless of size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependence, possesses incredible intrinsic dignity by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God.
No one person has any right over any other person. Human life deserves full respect and protection at every stage.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.