Embryos: Not a Means to an End

University of Michigan alumna Brooke Kendrick knew she carried a gene for adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a genetic condition that any male child she bore would likely inherit. ALD, a rare, degenerative condition, is typically fatal 10 years after the disease’s onset. When Kendrick and her husband decided to start a family, they used in vitro fertilization, tested the embryos for the gene, and only implanted the healthy embryos, thus eradicating the disease from spreading further down the family line. The embryos that were not deemed healthy were sent to their mother’s alma mater, UM’s Medical School, for testing on ALD. While many an uninformed person may laud Kendrick for her donation for research purposes (her positive intention is unarguable), the ethics of their actions is less clear-cut. Catholics know that in vitro fertilization is an intrinsic evil (that is, not justifiable under any circumstances), but once the embryos exist is donation for research moral?

The Director of the UM lab where Kendrick’s embryos are being tested, Gary Smith, Ph.D said, “Disease-specific human embryonic stem cells are the gold standard for research–the purest pathway to understanding disease establishment and progression, and to discovering ways to prevent or alleviate pain and suffering caused by these diseases.” Several scientists at the UM lab were interviewed, all citing their gratitude for the Kendricks and those who donate their genetic disease-stricken embryos for research purposes. The amount of progress made in eradicating several genetic diseases through embryonic stem cells has been astounding, they claimed. However, many argue that embryos are being destroyed on a daily basis in this research, and that actually very little progress has been made. “We don’t know how close we are to treatment,” said Dr. John Fink, one of the researchers on Kendrick’s embryos. “Are we a paper-thin slice away? Or are we a decade away? We don’t know. We only know that if we stop working on it, we’ll never get there.”

ivfPrior to 2009, there was very little regulation of embryonic stem cell research within the private sector. The 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment banned government funding of research that destroyed embryos. Embryonic stem cell research was legalized and received some government funding beginning in 2009 under President Obama’s executive order, “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.” Since this time, many argue that very little (if any) scientific progress has been made. To date, people only hope that cures will result from this line of research.The problem with using embryos for scientific research is chiefly that scientists in question are using and destroying actual human beings while working to save others. The infamous Nazi death camps similarly used human subjects, often resulting in their deaths. This comparison may appear extreme, but an embryo and an adult are equally human. The fact that these Nazi experiments actually brought about results that are still cited by scientists does not justify the method by which this information was obtained.

Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae: “As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used.” A 2000 Vatican declaration entitled, “Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells” said, “No end believed to be good, such as the use of stem cells for the preparation of other differentiated cells to be used in what look to be promising therapeutic procedures, can justify an intervention of this kind. A good end does not make right an action which in itself is wrong.”While few would argue that the Kendricks are well-intentioned, not only is embryo donation problematic, the method by which they are bringing their children into the world is also destroying several more children than are being carried to term. On the first round of IVF, twelve embryos were conceived, nine of which carried genetic problems. Of the three healthy embryos that were implanted, only one survived until birth—their beautiful son, Gus.

My grandmother had seven children, five of whom were born with and later died from Cystic Fibrosis. While this continues to be difficult for her, as well as for our entire family, the thought of my uncles and aunt not living their brief lives in exactly the way that they were destined to is unfathomable to me. Had the Kendricks chose to conceive naturally rather than destroy lives via IVF and embryo donation, they would have had a difficult road ahead of them, but these tiny lives had as much worth as their son Gus. All lives are equally valuable, including those of my uncles and aunt who were afflicted with Cystic Fibrosis, or anyone with or without a genetic disease. The University of Michigan has certainly had their issues on the football field in recent years, but their ethical issues are proving to run much further than the end zone that they seldom reached.

Brittany Higdon is a native of Ohio and has been residing in the Washington, DC area for the past six years.  She holds a B.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville and an M.Ed from the University of Virginia. She is a Reading Specialist and is passionate about Catholic education. When she is not teaching or writing, she is exploring the Smithsonian Museums, traveling, and playing with her ferocious Dachshund/Yorkie cross named Cannoli.
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