The human embryo is a human being with moral status whether in a test tube or a woman’s womb and deserves enough respect not to be destroyed for its stem cells, argued a philosophy professor in an academic paper presented at the Baptist World Alliance meeting in the Netherlands, where some 360 global Baptists are in attendance.


“[B]ecause the embryo, whether in vitro or in utero, is a human, we owe it enough respect not to create it or interrupt its natural growth so to destroy it for its stem cells,” wrote Dennis Sansom, chair of the philosophy department at Samford University.


Sansom argued that from the earliest reproduction stages, that emerging cell was a human being.


“Since a normal zygote has the organic capability of developing into an embryo and the embryo into a fetus and the fetus into a newborn human, we must say that the zygote is a potential person,” wrote Sansom. “We assume it is human because we want its human stem cells for human therapies.”


Contrary to the position of some who want to use stem cells in research for health therapies, Sansom said that “the distinction between a potential human and actual human worthy of being treated with human dignity is not really all that clear.”


“[I]t is a distinction that really does not make an ethical difference for us because we have a certain duty that is the same owed to a potential as to an actual human,” said Sansom.


A member of the BWA’s Commission of Christian Ethics, Sansom was presenting his own moral position, not speaking for the BWA. 


The Birmingham professor raised the often used question that pro-stem cell research advocates ask to argue that an embryo “lacks a clear moral status.”


In the event of a fire at a fertility clinic with little time to save the lab: Would a 2-month-old baby or a rack of test tubes with embryos be saved? Most respondents say that the baby would be saved, meaning the embryos do not have the same status as a living human being.


While he called that argument for stem cell research “counterintuitive,” he did not fully remove the dilemma that the question raises.


“I think it is consistent with our basic intuitions to treat the embryo not as just a clump of cells but as a human that is potentially a fetus, infant, toddler, so on,” said Sansom.


“Because the embryo has much more at risk than the possible beneficial consequences of its stem cells, namely its life, we should respect it as though it were a person,” he said.


“We must factor the moral weight of its personhood, even if we think it is only a potential human…This moral weight compels us to realize that to justify destroying it is the same as justifying killing a person,” wrote Sansom. “We then must decide that the moral status of the embryo, which is a potential fetus, newborn, etc. is more morally compelling on us than the potential therapies that might result from the stem cells.”


“[I]f the zygote is at least a potential human being that should be treated with respect, and…if we try to justify killing it, in fact we are justifying killing a human, then we should conclude that the zygote has a moral claim to which we should feel obliged to act beneficently,” wrote the philosophy professor.


Toward the end of his paper, Sansom turned to the problem of “spare” embryos from in vitro fertilization.


“My concern here is not with the morality of IVF, even though the practice of fertilizing more embryos than may be necessary for a successful pregnancy is ethically problematic,” said Sansom. “My concern is if we were to destroy a redundant embryo from IVF for its stem cell, would we violate its neighbor status, and hence violate our duty to it?”


His answer was that stem cells could be used from nonviable embryos.


“[W]e can take the stem cells from the embryos past the point of viability, but not the ones that can be viably implanted,” said the Samford University professor. “Those past viability can no longer be successfully transplanted and hence do not have an organic destiny. They are kept alive but do not have the potential to mature into an implanted human embryo, fetus, newborn, etc.”


He said: “Just as we take the organs of the recent dead without being the cause of their death, we can take the stem cells from the embryos devoid of an organic destiny. They remain neighbors, though neighbors without a future as a human embryo, fetus, newborn child.”


Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist

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