Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Stem Cell Research and Cloning

Elizabeth Hepburn

The questions of the status of the embryo were raised very eloquently in a cartoon published in the Melbourne Age newspaper in 1984 when the issue of what should be done with the Rios twins was before the court. In this cartoon [Peter] Nicholson depicted a group of men-medicos, legal eagles, clergymen, academics standing around a test tube which bears a tag saying ‘orphan embryos’ and one of the men is saying, ‘We must find a solution to this problem.’ Not a single person depicted is capable of being a mother. It reminds one of Solomon’s decision about the baby brought before him; he thought that the person who would decide in the best interests of the infant was the mother.

The ‘problem’ was what should be done with the embryos of an Argentinean couple called Rios, and left behind in a freezer in Melbourne. Mrs Rios had become pregnant through IVF conducted in a Melbourne clinic and returned to Argentina to await the birth of her babe. Tragically, the couple were killed in a plane crash. The issue before the court was how the very considerable Rios estate should be divided.

If it could be established that the embryos were the children of the Rios couple they may be the rightful inheritors of a fortune; if that were not the case, then the embryos would constitute part of the estate to be divided. The outcome depended on whether the embryos are regarded as persons and subjects, or seen as mere cells and property or objects.

Nicholson, though, saw more problems than the dilemma over the status of the embryos. In the other half of his cartoon he drew a number of vaguely Asiatic figures, poorly clad and standing beneath a sign which said ‘Third World.’ He posed the question, do we have the right to invest in technology to reproduce ourselves while there are so many members of the human community condemned to starvation?

It seems to me that while the Rios predicament raised countless questions these two are really central to the way in which we think about technology and ourselves as human beings.

From section 2 of Stem Cell Research and Cloning: contemporary challenges to our humanity, published as volume 7 number 2 of the Interface series by the Australian Theological Foundation, 2004
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