Defining a New Ethical Standard for Human in Vitro Embryos in the Context of Stem Cell Research

By: Sina A. Muscati

This iBrief discusses some of the social, ethical and legal considerations surrounding the use of unimplanted, in vitro embryos in stem cell research. It proposes that a new ethical standard be elucidated for these embryos. The iBrief gives an overview of two proposals for such a standard at opposite ends of the spectrum: treating the in vitro embryo as a legal person versus treating it as mere property. It argues against both approaches. The former can have undesirable social implications including undue interference with female reproductive autonomy, while the latter would objectify potential human life and reproductive potential. The iBrief proposes an intermediate approach that treats the embryo as a special entity. It warns against a model whereby the respect accorded to embryos is made dependent on the attainment of various qualitative or developmental criteria. The complexities surrounding human life, it argues, are too uncertain. What is certain is the embryo’s unique potential for human life, at any developmental stage. This, the iBrief proposes, should be the sole criterion for an embryo’s special status, a status that should be confined within constitutional limits.

Cite: 2002 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 0026