The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) recently invited two members of the President's Council on Bioethics to reflect on the ethics of using embryonic stem cells in biomedical research. Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, explained his opposition to the destruction of human embryos created by the union of gametes, but sought to distinguish such embryos from what he dubbed "clonotes": that is, embryos brought into being by cloning (a process known technically as "somatic cell nuclear transfer" or SCNT). He argued that human "clonotes" are not really human embryos, and thus do not enjoy the high moral status of embryos brought into being by ordinary sexual intercourse or by the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). These "clonotes," McHugh argued, may be legitimately destroyed for purposes of stem cell harvesting, so long as they are destroyed before the fourteenth day of their development. Michael Sandel, a professor of political theory at Harvard University, defended the killing of human embryos in biomedical research without regard to the method by which such embryos are brought into being. In his view, human embryos, whether produced by union of sperm and egg or by somatic cell nuclear transfer, are not entitled to the moral immunity against direct attack that is enjoyed by human beings at later developmental stages.
Both McHugh and Sandel are leading figures in the embryo research debate, and the arguments they put forward are made frequently by others seeking moral grounds for engaging in the destruction of human embryos. But these arguments do not withstand critical examination. In our view, human beings in the embryonic stage are entitled to the same immunity from attack that is enjoyed by human beings at later developmental stages, and it is irrelevant whether these embryonic human beings came into existence by sexual union, in vitro fertilization, or somatic cell nuclear transfer.
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