Human embryonic stem cell research: why the discarded-created-distinction cannot be based on the potentiality argument

Bioethics. 2005 Apr;19(2):167-86. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2005.00432.x.


Discussions about the use and derivation of pluripotent human embryonic stem cells are a stumbling block in developing public policy on stem cell research. On the one hand there is a broad consensus on the benefits of these cells for science and biomedicine; on the other hand there is the controversial issue of killing human embryos. I will focus on the compromise position that accepts research on spare embryos, but not on research embryos ('discarded-created-distinction', from now on d-c-d). I will point out that this viewpoint is hard to maintain. The main focus is that the 'revealed beliefs' of its defenders are inconsistent with their 'professed beliefs', more specifically with their main argument, i.e. the potentiality argument. I will point out that (1) the defenders of d-c-d actually grant a relative moral status to the human embryo, (2) this moral status is dependent on internal and external criteria of potentiality, (3) potentiality seen as a variable value that also depends on external criteria cannot justify d-c-d, and (4) an approach to human embryonic stem cell-research that would also allow the use of research embryos is more compatible with the feelings, attitudes and values of those who currently defend d-c-d and, therefore, could lead to a broader consensus and to actions that alleviate individual human suffering.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude
  • Beginning of Human Life
  • Embryo Disposition / ethics*
  • Embryo Research / ethics*
  • Embryo, Mammalian* / cytology
  • Embryonic Development
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Fertilization in Vitro
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations
  • Principle-Based Ethics
  • Research Embryo Creation / ethics*
  • Stem Cells*
  • Value of Life