To what age of embryo (if at all) it would be considered socially/morally acceptable to use embryo as stem cell source to potentially save someone's live?
EDIT: I would like an answer to give perspective of using embryos from different frameworks like utilitarian and Kantian and others that could sensibly be applied.

  • Subjective. What does "morally" mean?
    – iphigenie
    May 8 '14 at 8:29
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    Still subjective. There's an ongoing debate about that, so there's definitely not one answer to this.
    – iphigenie
    May 8 '14 at 8:54
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    can you give us a framework or something? Right now, it's basically a wide open question capable only either of an answer covering many or all theories or merely subjective answers. I don't have the patience to write the former on this one nor the will to join the latter.
    – virmaior
    May 8 '14 at 9:03
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    What I mean is add something like "from a utilitarian framework" or "from a Kantian framework" or "if you believe life is sacred." Give us some guidelines here as to what you mean by morality.
    – virmaior
    May 8 '14 at 9:41
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    @virmaior that is exactly type of answer I am looking for. It would give pespective of using embryos that would be seen from utilitarian and Kantian other frameworks that sensibly could be applied, I do understand it is broad, But other option would be asking many versions of same question, which I don't mind if you think I should do so. May 8 '14 at 9:49

Embryos are a stage in development of human organisms.

To phrase the issue concisely: If something is X at the end of a time interval, then either it must become X during that interval, or else it must have been X from the start.

Therefore, becoming X requires a distinct change - "person" is a binary distinction. There are no "half-person" or "3/7ths person" as valid options.

But physiologically, genetically, biochemically, anatomically - all development is gradual. (Look at the above link and see how slowly we change - and remember that these are a small number of stop-motion frames over 9 months of gradual development in gestation.)

After the formation of the zygote, there are strong scientific arguments that no single defining moment of change in the development from zygote through adult senescence is significant enough of a change to demarcate a change in status to toggle from "not a human life" to "human life." Nor from "not a person" to "is a person."

(Even birth is a process of several hours to several days, and a journey of almost 2 feet. At what moment is it a human life or a person? Out with cord cut? Without it cut? Only head out? Cervix dilated?)

Cognition is also a very gradual development that can vary widely between individuals. Discussions on this have very diverse opinions.

I argue that if one cannot define criteria for a toggle point, there cannot be a solid argument for any point. Therefore, if no toggle point can be established, it defaults to the beginning of the line - the first point of formation of that particular human organism.

Otherwise we are stuck in vagueness, ambiguity -- but this is a situation where there absolutely must be a definition; lacking a clear definition of "life" or "person" results in dangerous inconsistencies in discussions on policy, bioethics, and legality.

  • Thank you kindly for provision of a source and an informed perspective on the matter. With regards your second-to-final paragraph - while the point at which the vessel may be referred to as a human is unfeasible to argue (beyond insemination as a starting point, perhaps), the same is likely not so for definition of person - if one were to accept that the brain is the seat of reason, personality and will (even the most fundamental will to 'be') then a lot of moral questions (contraception, morning-after pill, stem cell harvesting, etc.) would allow for greater flexibility.
    – Avestron
    May 8 '14 at 12:54
  • A stew takes several hours to make. At the beginning, it is raw, at the end it is cooked. There is no clear transition from "raw" to "cooked", ergo it must be cooked from the beginning.
    – Davidmh
    May 8 '14 at 14:42
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    @Avestron, Basing the definition of a human being on what is convenient is illogical and unethical. It is inconvenient that the elderly (many with limited cognition due to Alzheimer's and dementia) consume most health care costs in the last years. Should they not be people then, so we can save costs? Then we could adopt euthanasia without consent, based upon whether their children are tired of caring for them and can't afford a nursing home. Using that as a definition would be convenient for some - but certainly not ethical, nor logical. Even then, when do we turn the "person" switch off?
    – DoctorWhom
    May 8 '14 at 19:19
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    Infanticide is almost universally illegal. An infant born at 6 months, killed by its mother 2 months later because she couldn't afford to take care of it: murder. A term infant conceived on the same day, killed on the same day for the same reason, is still in utero: late term abortion. Both are 8 months gestation, identical developmental age. So why? Not birth (see answer). The mother's will? This is definition based upon convenience, regardless of how tragic the circumstances. Defining "person" for a member of our species based upon what someone else currently "wills" is illogical.
    – DoctorWhom
    May 8 '14 at 19:48
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    For society to define "person" for a member of our species based upon what someone else currently "wills" is scientifically and morally illogical. It is a way to justify what we feel should be done without calling it what it is. Regardless of what society chooses, we need to at least be honest with ourselves, rather than softening reality with convenient definitions.
    – DoctorWhom
    May 8 '14 at 19:59

This would require an answer to the question of why people have rights and what sorts of other things should have right, if any. The reason people have rights is that having such standards makes it easier for people to do interesting stuff and to cooperate with one another, as I will now illustrate. So if we still had slavery then the people in the group who could be enslaved would have a hard time cooperating with anybody else because they might be enslaved at any time and be unable to follow through on their own plans. And people who wanted to cooperate with those in the enslaved group would have the problem that their partner could be enslaved and so would be unable to cooperate with them. The slavemasters would have the problem that if they are doing something stupid or bad their slaves can't leave which would indicate that he is doing something wrong.

Embryos that don't have brains can't think and so can't offer improvements and shouldn't have rights. At some time between the development of the brain and when the child starts speaking, he starts creating knowledge (at a minimum the knowledge required to speak and acquire vocabulary). When the embryo crosses that line they should have rights and not before. Until they cross that line it is okay to take issue from them, after that line you should get their consent. My understanding is that embryos don't have the equipment required to create new knowledge until some time after 20 weeks or later. I doubt that any of the embryo tissue currently available comes from embryos that can come up with new ideas.

  • Incidentally the brain cells and nervous system start to form in an embryo approximately 17 days into a pregnancy... I lost the source however.
    – Avestron
    May 8 '14 at 9:22
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    This answer is phrased as a strongly subjective opinion, and it is difficult to follow. There are bold statements of "should" using terms like "do interesting stuff and cooperate with each other" as reasons for personhood, and "can't offer improvements" as reason for denying personhood, without supporting information. Also, you make scientific claims without providing sources to back it up. Avestron is right - the neural tube begins before 3 weeks, not 20. By 20 days you can clearly see all 3 sections of the brain. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8005032
    – DoctorWhom
    May 8 '14 at 12:17
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    Also, developmentally, a speaking infant cannot give informed consent for taking its life. I could argue based upon developmental psychology that you cannot obtain truly informed consent for that until minimally late teen years. This article discusses adults in situations where obtaining consent may not be ethical due to impairments in capacity. Capacity to consent can not be a logical criteria in personhood, or all these become non-persons. grants1.nih.gov/grants/policy/questionablecapacity.htm
    – DoctorWhom
    May 8 '14 at 12:28
  • @DoctorWhom "The neural groove and folds are first seen during stage 8 (about 18 postovulatory days)" would it be safe to say that before 2.5 weeks embryo does not have nervous system - cannot 'feel'. May 8 '14 at 22:25
  • Define "feel." Sensation? Pain? Awareness? Reaction? "Feel" is a poor criterion for defining anything, let alone personhood. If the question is just "does it feel in the same way you or I feel?" then of course not - but neither does an infant, a paraplegic, nor you on morphine. Does a 2 week embryo have nociceptors? Not yet, but there are also adults without functioning nociceptors, whose neurology is incapable of perceiving pain. Their capacity to feel is different, so if capacity to feel the way you feel is the criterion for being a person, are they people? Partial people?
    – DoctorWhom
    May 9 '14 at 0:42

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