[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�