The Embryo Eaters:
A Bioethical Thought Experiment

[Note: Since I’m busy with The Washington Briefing this week, I thought I’d recycle this post from April 2005.]
The following thought experiment is used to explore some basic assumptions currently held in the field of bioethics. As with any such hypothetical scenario, a certain degree of liberty is taken with what is considered within the realm of possibility. Some people may complain that I have stretched the normal boundaries of the discussion in order to make a point.
I completely agree.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which many people consider it ethical to destroy “non-person humans” in order to use their parts for experiments in speculative medical science. When such views are so commonly accepted it’s difficult to present a test case that pushes the limits beyond our society’s absurd and twisted views on bioethics.


It begins with an old wives tale. After receiving a grant from a multi-national pharmaceutical company, a young French medical scientist begins a post-doctoral study of a peculiar practice conducted in Belgium. A guild of midwives has adapted the obscure practice of eating the placenta and used it as a cure for some forms of minor debilitating afflictions. The Belgian media reports on stories of miraculous recovery from arthritis by elderly citizens who eat a soup made with fresh placenta.
The young scientist is initially skeptical, believing a placebo effect is responsible for the “miraculous” results. But after conducting his own research the French doctor becomes convinced that further study is warranted. The public’s disgust and the medical community’s lukewarm reception of the claims, though, sours the pharmaceutical company on pursuing further research. Fortunately for the young physician, a Dutch billionaire who was cured of his own ailments decides to fund the inquiry.

Flush with money, the Frenchman is able to carry out additional research and soon becomes convinced that an enzyme found in trace amounts in the placenta is responsible. Additional tests are conducted using embryos that were spontaneously aborted during the gastrula stage of development. The results are astounding. Soon after digesting a soup made with human embryos, the patients show complete relief of their previous symptoms. The research reveals that seven-week old embryos at the gastrula stage contain an optimal amount of the enzyme but that, if provided in sufficient quantities, the results can be matched by using embryos in earlier stages of development.
Caring more about helping humans than perfecting the science, the Dutch billionaire begins stockpiling ‘spare’ embryos that he buys from IVF clinics and opens his own alternative medicine clinics in which patients can eat embryos in order to obtain the curative enzyme. The stories of miraculous recoveries spread across Europe and lead to calls for similar clinics in the U.S. and Canada.
After nearly draining the market of frozen IVF embryos, the Dutch entrepreneur begins hiring young women to serve as egg donors in order to supply the growing demand. Becoming an egg donor, or ‘egger’, as the press calls it, becomes a lucrative option for fertile women with few career options. The job of egger even becomes viewed by some feminist academics as a ideal means of using a woman�s body to exploit the male-dominated capitalist system.
A less accepted practice, however, begins to attract public scrutiny. Women seeking first-trimester abortions are offered free medical services and a stipend to pay for
“future counseling needs” if they consent to the use of their aborted embryo by the new clinics. The Italian government claims that it cheapens human life and could lead desperate women to become pregnant in order to profit from an abortion. The French and Dutch grumble but do nothing. Germany and Ireland pass laws banning the sale of aborted tissue to the “embryo eater” clinics.
Thousands of cures later, the first clinic is scheduled to open in America. Religious conservatives lead a massive march on Washington to protest the practice which they view as a form of cannibalism. Congress, swayed by the lobbying efforts of various patient’s rights groups, refuses to outlaw the practice. The President mulls over the idea of issuing an executive decision but defers to you, his chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
How would you advise the President? On what basis would you argue either for or against the practice? Assume that the scientific merits of the procedure were beyond question and all that was left are the ethical roadblocks. Do you remove them or keep them in place? Do you advise accepting the practice while limiting the auxiliary issues such as funding egg donors and paying for aborted tissue?
What would you do about the embryo eaters�

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • originalist

    “Congress, swayed by the lobbying efforts of various patient’s rights groups, refuses to outlaw the practice.”
    I advise the President to follow Congress’s wise lead for a change. This is not a federal question. I’d return to real federal questions like balancing the budget and ensuring social security is stable.

  • Collin Brendemuehl

    I see two questions
    1. How would you advise the President?
    Note that this falls under the current restrictions regarding the sale of human tissue as well as FDA regulations. Even as the momentum increases, begin protecting our laws and civility with a suitable Constitutional amendment, not aimed at embryo eaters, but aimed at the protection of life.
    2. What would you do about the embryo eaters?
    Frame the argument as accurately and precisely as possible: Cannibalism.

  • anonymous

    I’m not crazy about the use of the term ‘alternative medicine’ to describe your scenario.

  • Don

    I think “alternative medicine” describes it perfectly. Sacrificing one life in order to cure another is certainly not consistent with any Hippocratic Oath I’ve ever read. As for whether this is a federal question, that point was rendered moot with Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court took it upon themselves to write law rather than interpret it. That act made it a federal issue requiring the presidents attention. I would advise the president to stick to his guns and stand by his previous convictions. Ban the the practice.

  • Kevin

    Enzymes are proteins which would be destroyed by heating in the creation of the soup or by digestive juices. Perhaps the “miracle” substance could be another form of biomolecule (steroid perhaps?). This makes the farfetched scenario a little more plausible.

  • Mike O

    A tip of the hat to Kevin for taking Joe’s scenario from the absurd to the possible and so easily too.

  • mkz

    I would advise the president to issue an emergency executive order to terminate the system of practice immediately. There is little doubt that this is by basic definition cannibalism, and as such has no place in civilized society. As with embryonic stem cells, the killing of one human being for the benefit of another defies sane ethical practice. Strict penalties for traffickers and violators, with no option to plea bargain should be enacted. No penalties would be leveled on those who participated before the moratorium, but for the cannibals who choose to seek out the treatment in foreign nations, they would be denied re-entry to the U.S. other than to liquidate their assets, and move them to wherever they choose to go.
    Once this is done, I would urge the president to direct congress to seek funding from federal and private sources to analyze the research, application, and results of the enzyme application in past practice, and move quickly to replicate it artificially. If it is not something that can be replicated with present technology, then isolating and genetically enhancing the enzyme from donated placentas from live births ( or stillbirths if viable) and developing a sound medically suitable delivery method could be explored.

  • Loki

    This hypothetical situation is basically just the same debate over abortion and stem cell research that has been going on for some time with a bit more ‘gross-out’ factor added in. It all comes back to when you believe human life begins. If you don’t think an embryo is a human life, then embryo eating is no more cannibalism than chewing your nails.
    If believe that life begins at conception, however, then embryo eating is murder and cannibalism of the blackest sort. This hypothetical situation by itself, however, changes little.

  • JohnW

    I think the president should render the Dutch entrepreneur to a foreign country and subject him to some super extra special enhanced interogation techniques until he agrees to shut down the clinics.
    And just so I’m clear I’m not suggesting the Dutch entrepreneur should be tortured because as you know, “we don’t torture”.

  • Krig the Viking

    Loki is absolutely right. People get confused by all these peripheral issues such as stem cells saving lives, when the real issue is whether the fetus is a person or not. If a fetus isn’t a person, then abortions are no worse than amputations. If a fetus is a person, then killing a fetus is morally and legally exactly the same as killing a newborn, or a thirty-year-old.
    This, by the way, is the reason so many conservatives have such a hard time supporting Giuliani. If you really believe that a fetus is a person just like a baby or a thirty year old, then supporting a politician who supports the right to an abortion is like supporting a politician who supports the right to the ritual sacrifice of unwilling virgins, and all of his protests about how “I am against it, but it should be up to the mother to decide” just sound absurd.

  • Protagonist

    I would advise him to do nothing.
    Check your premises: If the President makes a legal prohibition, will it stop the practice, or will it have bad unintended consequences that cause more death and violence? What do the history of prohibitions against alcohol, drugs, lotteries and abortions tell you?
    All else being equal, people should be allowed to do what they want with their property and form whatever contracts they wish, so long as it is not an act of force or fraud on another. Granted, the counterargument that prenatal procedures are an initiation of force, and should be prohibited by a government with a monopoly on force.
    But even if you’ve answered the “why”, you’re left with the “how” to prevent abortion. Making people stop murdering or raping, etc. each other is a simple, non-intrusive and cost effective activity for law-enforcement. The distinction of criminal & victim in terms of time, space, health and welfare; and similarities in physical abilities to survive and defend, make prior restraints on force feasible, and post-punishment and effective deterent. But with fetus & mother, it would take an orweillan level of surveillance to make sure the mother doesn’t intentionally “miscarry”, and the punishment of failing to birth and care for an unwanted child can be no worse than law-abiding alternative.
    There need to be other solutions to the abortion problem than the traditional “law and order” solutions that have consistently failed in other areas of vice prevention. One I’ve proposed here in my old blog as an economic incentive for not aborting and setting recovery at law for the “trespass” of a fetus in its mother’s womb. Another is what churches have been doing all along since Roe v. Wade: preach about abortion and childbirth, Talk about its moral and physical dangers, start crisis pregnancy centers, destigmatize out-of-wedlock pregnancy and illegitimate, meet and support mothers and children where they are. These non-authoritative, persuasive and free-market methods of preventing abortion have actually led to a Post-Roe decrease in pregnancy terminations, from 2 million illegal abortions in 1969 to less than 900k legal abortions in 2001. The body of Christ is doing such a good job at fighting abortion, it would be a shame to let the government mess it up.

  • smmtheory

    You know Protagonist, part of the problem is thinking of abortion as a vice instead of murder.

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