It might be said that there is a difference - those who engage
in assisted reproduction engage in the destruction of embryos
at a greater rate than need be. Those who engage in sex are
not engaged in the destruction of embryos at a greater rate
than is required for the outcome they seek. It would be inter-
esting to know whether, if creating a single embryo by IVF2
became a reliable technique pro-life supporters would feel
obliged to use this method rather than sexual reproduction
because of its embryo-sparing advantages. It looks as though
there would indeed be a strong moral obligation to abandon
natural procreation3 and use only embryo-sparing ART.
Consider a fictional IVF scenario. A woman has two fertilised eggs and is told it is certain that if
she implants both only one will survive but that if she implants only one it will not survive. Would
she be wrong to implant two embryos to ensure a successful singleton pregnancy4? This example is of
course fictional only in terms of the degree of certainty supposed. It is good practice in IVF to
implant two or three embryos in the hope of achieving the successful birth of one child. Thus in
normal IVF as in normal sexual reproduction the creation and 'sacrifice' of embryos in pursuit of
a live child is not only accepted as necessary but is part of the chosen means for achieving the
objective. Most people would I believe judge this to be permissible and indeed it is what often
happens in successful IVF pregnancies where up to three embryos are implanted in the hope of one
live birth. Even in Germany where stem cell research using embryos is currently banned and where
legal protections for the embryo are enshrined5 in the constitution, IVF is permitted and it is usual
to implant three embryos in the hope and expectation of achieving no more than a single live birth.
Even if we could accurately predict in advance which embryos would survive and which would not, the
ethics would not change. Suppose that for some biological reason there was a condition which required
that in order for one embryo to implant it was necessary to introduce a companion embryo which would
not, and we could tell in advance which would be which. It is difficult to imagine how or why this
fact would alter the ethics of the procedure; it would remain the case that one must die in order
that the other survives. If people in this condition wanted ART would we judge it unethical to provide
it to them but not to 'normal' IVF candidates when the 'costs' were the same in each case - namely the
loss of one embryo in pursuit of a healthy birth.
It might be objected that the parallel with sexual reproduction is like saying that because we know
that road traffic causes thousands of deaths per year, to drive a car is to accept that the sacrifice
of thousands of lives in almost every country, for example, is a price worth paying for the institution
of motor transport. This might seem a telling analogy showing that we do not willingly accept the
inevitable consequences of what we do. There are, of course, many disanalogous features of the
purported reductio ad absurdum6 comparison with road deaths. The vast majority of drivers will
go all their lives without having an injury causing incident let alone a fatality, and the probability
of any individual causing a death once exacerbating7 factors such as alcohol use and reckless fatigue
are taken into account is vanishingly small by any standards and insignificant when compared with the
high risk of production of embryos in unprotected sex between fertile partners. However, suppose an
individual knew that despite a long driving career without accidents today is the day that either
they will surely be involved in a fatal accident and cause someone's death or that the probability
of this happening is very high indeed. Would it be conceivable that it might be permissible, let
alone ethical, to drive today? And yet that is the situation with normal sexual intercourse, at
least for those who regard the embryo as protected.
Source: On Cloning by John Harris, Taylor&Francis, 2004; pp. 133-135
1. ART = assisted reproduction technology
2. IVF = in vitro fertilization (künstliche Befruchtung)
3. procreation = Zeugung, Nachwuchs
4. pregnancy = Schwangerschaft
5. enshrined = verankert
6. reductio ad absurdum = lat.: für Zurückführung auf das widrig Klingende, Ungereimte, Unpassende, Sinnlose.
Bei der Reductio ad absurdum wird eine Aussage widerlegt, indem gezeigt wird, dass aus ihr entweder ein
logischer Widerspruch oder ein Widerspruch zu einer bereits anerkannten These folgt.
7. to exacerbate= verschlimmern
1. Pro-life supporters oppose the use of embryos and stem cells even for therapeutical ends. According to the text,
is their opinion convincing?
2. Why do you think is stem cell research using embryos forbidden in Germany, butIVF allowed although embryos
3. Describe the analogy between the destruction of embryos and the death toll through road traffic in
your own words, and say if this is a lame comparison
4. What is your opinion on cloning using embryos and stem cells. Should scientists be given more freedom
in doing research with them?