How will these resources help you?

Since the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, embryo research and the concept of ‘designer babies’ have captured the public imagination. This raises a number of ethical questions, including whether we have the right to fertility, how far it is acceptable to plan what kind of child to have, and what is acceptable to do with an embryo in the pursuit of research. These issues are fast evolving: each year, new debates, case studies and technologies have enlivened my classroom atmosphere and inspired many students to explore dissertations in these areas. These resources examine some of the key philosophical ideas behind the debates, from a range of perspectives.

An early reaction to IVF

External Human Fertilization

by Clifford Grobstein, published by Scientific American, Vol. 240, No.6, (1979), pp. 57–67, (1979)

This article is one of the early academic responses to the birth of Louise Brown, outlining some of the implications and possibilities resulting from the advent of IVF, as well as moral issues relating to them. Grobstein raises the ethical questions of surrogacy, designer babies, potential health problems associated with embryo manipulation, and embryological research. He recognises the potential utility of ongoing embryo research for developing scientific understanding, and establishes the idea of ‘recognisability’ as a human as a criterion for personhood, arguing that embryology, within agreed limits, is an ethically acceptable pursuit for society.

A range of discussions about embryology in practice

Philosophical Reflections on Medical Ethics

by Nafsika Athanassoulis, published by Palgrave Macmillan, (2005), 9780230247048

This edited volume has a particular focus on embryology, with thoughtful essays on genetic origins, the morality of embryonic stem cell use and genetic engineering. An essay of particular note is ‘Benefit, Disability and the Non-Identity Problem’, in which Hallvard Lillehammer explores how far we can ethically either prevent or introduce disability. Stephen Wilkinson’s essay on designer babies considers the concept of an ‘open future’ – one in which a child’s life is not pre-determined – and questions the extent to which that can be compatible with different expressions of instrumentalism, such as the selection of saviour siblings. These essays are accessible and I recommend them to advanced higher students pursuing dissertations on these topics.

Choosing who should be born

Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and Embryo Selection

by Bonnie Steinbock, edited by Justine Burley and John Harris, published by Blackwell, (2004), 9781405120289

Steinbock considers embryology alongside abortion, asking whether it can be acceptable to select an embryo for certain genetic traits, or ‘deselect’ an older foetus for other traits. She attempts to construct a balanced view, considering the issue of sentience, the difficulties of achieving successful IVF, and the voices of disability rights campaigners. (Several other essays of interest are also available in this collection.) 

Are embryos human?

Persons, Moral Worth and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments

by Stephen Napier, published by Springer, (2011), 9789400716018

This collection of academic essays from a Roman Catholic perspective focuses on the argument that life begins at conception. Here, the contributing ethicists argue that because embryos possess ‘intrinsic potentiality’ to be actualised people, they not only have the potential to be people, but they also meet the definition of people already. The fact that embryos do not have other supposedly human characteristics is not seen as relevant, as they possess the ‘epigenetic primordia’ necessary to develop life and are able to produce a ‘global integration of tissues into a functioning whole’, thus demonstrating that they have more in common with human beings than simply living cells. These arguments are challenging for many students and provide a helpful rebuttal to the common misconception that ‘scientists’ believe life begins at birth, demonstrating that there is no agreed ‘scientific moment’ that life begins and that the question is still up for debate.

Audiovisual clip

i-Science - Embryonic stem cells

published by BBC Two, (2019)

An exploration on the use of embryonic stem cells left over from IVF treatments and the ethics behind using these cells in research for cures to degenerative diseases.

Further materials

Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas in the Light of the Christian Faith (2nd Edition) by John Wyatt, published by IVP, (2009), 9781844743674 Find this book
The Ethics of Embryo Adoption and the Catholic Tradition: Moral Arguments, Economic Reality and Social Analysis by Sarah-Vaughan Brakman and Darlene Fozard Weaver, published by Springer, (2007), 9781402062100 Find this eBook
The Morality of Embryo Use by Louis M. Guenin, published by Cambridge University Press, (2008), 9780521694278 Find this book
Rethinking Life and Death by Peter Singer, published by Oxford University Press, (1995), 9780192861849 Find this book
Susan Woodshore is a teacher in Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Ecclesiastical History and enjoys creating new educational resources across religion, ethics and philosophy.

Text © Susan Woodshore, 2023.