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Embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) remains today an area of contention. However, one area of ESCR that is rarely discussed relates to the rights of embryos–not those of humans, but those of the other species that roam the planet. It is clear that embryos destroyed in the process of research are at least a form of life, yet the question remains: how do the rights of embryos compare to, say, a full-grown water buffalo or a mouse?
It seems that some countries, through their laws on animal experimentation, have implicitly answered this question. One such country is Switzerland, a country which continues to feverishly push for the protection of plant and animal dignity. In 1976, Switzerland adopted the Animal Protection Act, limiting the circumstances in which animals may be used in experimentation. In Section 6, Article 16, the Act declares that pain, suffering or injury may only be inflicted on an animal and when the purpose of the experiment can be achieved “in no other manner.”
Although the law was passed five years before the first embryonic stem cell research in the world was undertaken, and twenty-two years before the first successful culturing of stem cells from human embryos, the law swallows embryonic stem cell research into its belly. As ESCR is a method of testing and experimentation, the Swiss law, with its strong protection of animals against the misery of experimentation, affords greater protection to rats than potential human life.
In other words, in Switzerland, if a researcher were to seek a result and have two possibilities of testing, the first being a procedure that would cause pain to, for example, one rat, and the second being a procedure that would require the destruction of a human embryo, the Swiss law requires that researchers perform the procedure destroying the human embryo. In fact, the Swiss law, taken to its logical end, would never allow the infliction of pain on a rat through experimentation, even if the other option was destroying thousands of potential human lives. Switzerland is not alone, and indeed, without determining the rights of an embryo, such results are only likely to increase.
Can the above result be justified? Disregarding the obvious economic burdens the law creates, is it justifiable to accord a rat with more rights than a human life, even a potential human life?
It seems clear that the scientific and legal communities need to pause and consider this quandary. One option to obviate the unfortunate result of the Swiss law would be to argue that humans are also animals, making unborn human offspring the same as potential animals. This sleight of hand is even more unsatisfying, however, as humans surely have more intrinsic rights than a rat or a mouse. Additionally, this definitional maneuver does not answer the question of the proper allocation of rights between human embryos and lab animals.
Another option, and the one that seems more prudent, would be to afford embryos, due to their humanity, more protection than animals. But on what basis, more than just our gut instinct, should we give such protection, and how far should the protection extend? Also, if embryos deserve more rights than animals–yet, as they can be destroyed in the name of research, are less than human–what are they?
It seems we have allowed ourselves to become so enraptured by scientific advance and the humane treatment of animals that we have neglected the mental and theological heavy-lifting our actions require. Indeed, by our rampant pursuit of animal dignity, it seems may be on the verge of losing something even more important: human dignity.
– Timothy Van Hal
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