Biotechnological methods producing human embryos have been evolving since 1978 where the first test-tube baby was born. This involves the fusion of gametes outside the human body and is a technique known as In-Vitro-Fertilization (IVF). Of course, this method is worth considering in cases of infertility but this also brings up many implications and issues to discuss. There is no problem with fertilization but the difficulty crops up with embryo transfer where the 4/5 embryos are transferred to the mother’s womb hoping that one of them will implant itself in the women’s uterine lining and develop into a baby.
The chances of getting pregnant are very remote and so it became standard that more ova than required are extracted, all of which are fertilized. Only 4/5 embryos are used for implantation. The others are put aside, frozen in nitrogen baths, for later use. This means that if the woman gets pregnant the first time she can still use these embryos to get pregnant with a second baby. These frozen embryos are, in most cases, forgotten by their parents and this leads to the destruction of many embryos since clinics were ending up with large numbers of neglected, frozen embryos.
This brings us to the discussion of the moral status of a human embryo which might help us answer questions like ; is it right to freeze embryos ? ,can they be used for research ? ,can they be destroyed? Locke came up with his own definition of a person ; concept of self as a continuing subject of experience and other mental states and believing that it is itself such a continuing entity”. In other words to be a person one must possess a certain level of consciousness which neither an embryo nor a new born baby possesses. Some might choose to talk of potential person rather than person with potential.
Hence, at fertilization it is the development of a potential person rather than m person with potential. Hence, at fertilization it is the development of a potential person which starts and not the development of a person with potential. The ethical implication of this is that although embryos are recognized to be human beings, are not considered to be human persons and as only persons have rights, they can be used for research or destroyed. This was the reasoning adopted by Mary Warnock who wrote a report regarding the introduction of new methods of reproduction in the UK.
One particular recommendation of the report stated that embryos must, before they are 14 days old, be used for implantation, research, frozen or destroyed. In other words they cannot be kept alive beyond 14 days. After fertilization a process of cell division starts where the fertilized cell begins to divide until it becomes a ball of cells. This cell division takes place in the tube outside the uterus for the first week. In the second week the group of cells move towards the uterus and towards the end of the second week, implantation starts.
On pole of the group of cells begins to burrow itself into the uterine lining while the other pole will eventually become the foetus. After 14 days a process of cell differentiation starts where the tissues of the embryo start to be formed. During this 14 day period ‘identical twinning’ can take place, that is, the group of cells can duplicate resulting in identical twins. When cell differentiation starts after 14 days we say that the ‘primitive streak’ appears. When this happens, the possibility of identical twinning ends.
According to Kantian ethics you must act in such a way that you always treat human beings as ends and never as means. Therefore, every individual human being has a special kind of dignity and must be treated with the utmost respect. This means that a human person cannot be deliberately used, exploited harmed or destroyed for the benefit of others. When applied to the question of human embryos, Kantian ethics reaches the conclusion that any research or other manipulation, such as freezing, that damages an embryo or hinders its prospects of transfer to a uterus is ethically unacceptable.
This stands in stark contrast with the philosophical reasoning in utilitarianism. Utilitarians do not consider the individual human being to be of paramount value. According to them, what really matters is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Therefore this implies that if the results obtained from embryo research can give happiness to those who are infertile or have genetic defect, then research on embryos is ethically correct.
Using the ‘utility principle’ the pre-embryo may be harmed or destroyed for the benefit of others. It need not be respected or treated as an end itself. The human embryo is a human being and the respect due to it must not be different from the respect due to other human beings. It has the right of life and therefore must not be killed or exploited for any purpose whatsoever. Only Kantian ethics guarantees the defense of the dignity of the human embryo from the moment of conception.