The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, by Katrien Devolder

Ayesha Ahmad on a thoughtful contribution to a controversial debate

April 16, 2015

Bioethics is in an age of renaissance. In this thoughtful consideration of an important issue in the field, Katrien Devolder embraces the challenge of darting between disciplines to offer articulate and lively insight into the workings and context of embryonic stem cell research. As an academic bioethicist with experience in the clinical setting, it is important to me that context and morality are married. Devolder’s book accomplishes this task nicely, beginning in the introduction with a consideration of the potential use of embryonic stem cells (if not the embryo as a whole) for the alleviation of pain and disease. She convincingly directs us towards our moral obligation to alleviate suffering, underscoring that embryonic stem cell research is thus a moral enterprise.

We are thus set a formidable task right from the beginning, where we are offered two options: either accept the destruction of embryos for the purpose of alleviating suffering, or protect the sacredness of early human life and forfeit the potential to treat currently incurable conditions such as paralysis and neurodegenerative disorders.

Quite rightly, and interestingly so, Devolder emphasises that the advent of embryonic stem cell research has revitalised the age-old debate surrounding abortion. It may be wondered why there is such a morally charged debate about the use of embryonic stem cells when the aborting of embryos is legally permissible and part of our societal discourse. The answer seems to lie in our capacity to reflect and find certain treatments involving human life – regardless of any consensus about its moral status – to be repugnant. But this, I would argue, should be celebrated, rather than reduced to what Devolder terms “The Problem”.

The problem with “The Problem” is that it negatively frames our legitimate moral concerns about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps it is more that the two positions are irreconcilable without the aid of Devolder’s later development of compromise. However, we should reflect more holistically than positivistically in how we conceptualise the embryo and embryonic stem cells.

Harm is one of the interesting concepts Devolder explores; again, it is important to consider it in the context of society. The way we conduct our discourse on the human body is determined by the way we conceptualise. Whether it is correct to argue that embryos are not “harmed” when a researcher uses embryonic stem cells from an embryo that was not destroyed for that specific purpose is a peculiar way of trying to bargain over the value of human life.

Contemporary clinical medicine is requiring us to confront the real-time shifting boundaries of the beginning of (a) human life. The growing grey areas in a landscape that used to be seen as black and white are now the terrain we must negotiate. Furthermore, much to the dismay of positivists who seek to reduce the human condition to a set of analytical statements and construct a picture in which every embryonic stem cell sits in its “right” place, these grey areas are metaphysical puzzles. We need to undercut the ontology of human life to explore and expose and expand those aspects that have become familiar to us until they become strange again. Only then can we can talk about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.

The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

By Katrien Devolder
Oxford University Press, 176pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780199547999
Published 22 January 2015

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