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Consequentialism without Consequences: Ethics and Embryo Research


The legitimacy of embryo research, use, and destruction is among the most important issues facing contemporary bioethics. In the preceding paper, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu took up an argument of John Harris and tried to find some new ways of avoiding its dramatic consequences. They noted that: “John Harris has argued that if … it is morally permissible to engage in reproduction … despite knowledge that a large number of embryos will fail to implant and quickly die, then … it is morally permissible to produce embryos for other purposes that involve killing them, for instance, to harvest stem cells” and suggest that this argument fails.

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1. An important condition that Persson and Savulescu's reconstruction omits.

2. Harris J. Violence and Responsibility. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1980; Harris J. The Value of Life. London: Routledge; 1985; Harris J. The concept of the person and the value of life. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1999;9(4):293–308.

3. See note 2, Harris 1999.

4. Harris J. Stem cells, sex, and procreation. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2003;12(4):353–71, at p. 364.

5. The doctrine of double effect turns on intention: If this were to hold, then the intentional destruction of embryos in research would be unacceptable whereas their unintended but foreseen destruction in natural reproduction would not and vice versa.

6. For a discussion of the doctrine of double effect see note 2, Harris 1985:43ff. This has been considered at some length in the case of embryo research and reproduction in a previous exchange in this journal: see Savulescu J, Harris J. The creation lottery: Final lessons from natural reproduction: Why those who accept natural reproduction should accept cloning and other Frankenstein reproductive technologies. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2004;13(1):90–5; Savulescu J. Embryo research: Are there any lessons from natural reproduction? Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2004;13(1):68–75; Harris J. Sexual reproduction is a survival lottery. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2004;13(1):75–89; see note 4, Harris 2003.

7. Stanton C, Harris J. The moral status of the embryo post-Dolly. Journal of Medical Ethics 2005;31(4):221–5; Cameron C, Williamson R. In the world of Dolly, when does a human embryo acquire respect? Journal of Medical Ethics 2005;31(4):215–20.

8. See note 6, Harris 1985; see note 2, Harris 1999.

9. See note 6, Harris 2003.

10. Dworkin R. Life's dominion. London: Harper Collins; 1993:Chapter 3.

11. Here we rely on arguments elaborated by Harris; see note 2, Harris 1999.

12. Or Utilitarianism without utility.

13. Savulescu J. Should we clone human beings? Cloning as a source of tissue for transplantation. Journal of Medical Ethics 1999;25(2):87–95 at p. 91. It is clear that Savulescu does think a skin cell has actualizable potential.

14. Harold Macmillan, while Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, allegedly replied when asked what might interfere with his plans “events, dear boy, events.”

15. See note 7, Stanton, Harris 2005:221.

16. See, for example, Savulescu J. Sex selection: The case for. Medical Journal of Australia 1999;171(7):373–5; Savulescu J. Procreative beneficence: Why we should select the best children? Bioethics 2001a;15(5–6):413–26; Savulescu J. In defense of selection for nondisease genes. American Journal of Bioethics 2001b;1(1):16–9.

17. See Harris J. Is there a coherent social conception of disability? Journal of Medical Ethics 2000;26(2):95–101; Harris J. One principle and three fallacies of disability studies. Journal of Medical Ethics 2001;27(6): 383–8; Harris J, Sulston J. Genetic equity. Nature Reviews Genetics 2004;5(10)796–800.

18. See note 16, Savulescu 2001a.

19. See note 17.

20. See, e.g., note 16, Savulescu 1999 and 2001b; Savulescu J, Dahl E. Sex selection and preimplantation diagnosis: A response to the Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Human Reproduction 2000;15(9):1879-80.

21. See Harris J. Wonderwoman and Superman. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1992:47.

22. See note 6, Savulescu, Harris 2004:90.

23. With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and to George Orwell for changing trees.

24. See note 2, Harris 1985.

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Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
  • ISSN: 0963-1801
  • EISSN: 1469-2147
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-quarterly-of-healthcare-ethics
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