An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2008

Embryo ethics

Robert P. George

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is coauthor of “Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics” (2008) and “Embryo: The Case for Human Life” (2008). He is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and formerly served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

If we were to contemplate killing mentally handicapped infants to obtain transplantable organs, no one would characterize the controversy that would erupt as a debate about organ transplantation. The dispute would be about the ethics of killing handicapped children to harvest their vital organs. We could not resolve the issue by considering how many gravely ill people we could save by extracting a heart, two kidneys, a liver, etc., from each mentally handicapped child. Instead, we would have to answer this question: is it right to relegate a certain class of human beings–the handicapped–to the status of objects that can be killed and dissected to benefit others?

By the same token, strictly speaking ours is not a debate about stem cell research. No one would object to the use of pluripotent stem cells in biomedical research or therapy if they could be obtained from non-embryonic sources, or if they could be acquired by using embryos lost in miscarriages.1 The point of controversy is the ethics of deliberately destroying human embryos to produce stem cells. The threshold question is whether it is right to kill members of a certain class of humans–those in the embryonic stage of development–to benefit others.

Supporters of embryo-destructive research insist, however, that human embryos are not human beings–or if they are human beings, that they are not yet ‘persons.’ It is therefore morally acceptable, they say, to ‘disaggregate’ them for the sake of research aimed at finding cures or treatments for juvenile diabetes and other horrible afflictions.

At the heart of the debate over embryo-destructive research, then, are two questions: is a human embryo a human being, and, if so, what is owed to an embryonic human as a matter of justice?

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  • 1It appears that we will soon be able to obtain embryonic stem cells, or their equivalent, by means that do not require the destruction of human embryos. Important successes in producing pluripotent stem cell lines by reprogramming (or ‘de-differentiating’) human somatic cells have been reported in highly publicized papers by James A. Thomson’s research group, “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Lines Derived from Human Somatic Cells,” Sciencexpress, November 2007/ 10.1126science.1151526, and Shinya Yamanaka’s research group, “Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Adult Fibroblasts by Defined Factors,” Cell (published online, November 20, 2007). Citing these successes, Ian Wilmut of Edinburgh University, who is credited with producing Dolly the sheep by cloning, has decided not to pursue a license granted by British authorities to attempt to produce cloned human embryos for use in biomedical research. According to Wilmut, embryo-destructive means of producing the desired stem cells will be unnecessary: “The odds are that by the time we make nuclear transfer [cloning] work in humans, direct reprogramming will work too. I am anticipating that before too long we will be able to use the Yamanaka approach to achieve the same, without making human embryos.” Wilmut is quoted in Roger Highfield, “Dolly Creator Ian Wilmut Shuns Cloning,”, November 16, 2007. For a survey of possible non-embryo-destructive methods of obtaining pluripotent stem cells, see The President’s Council on Bioethics, “White Paper: Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells,” May 2005, available at
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