Opinion 2

Richard Ashcroft is Professor of Biomedical Ethics at Queen Mary, University of London

As an ethicist, Professor Ashcroft does a lot of thinking around the rights and wrongs of various medical procedures and treatments.

Picture of Richard Ashcroft

Richard Ashcroft.

Is it justifiable to destroy an embryo to develop treatments to serious diseases or to destroy one life to help another one?

"If you think that embryos have the same moral value as a newborn baby or adult man or woman, then just as you cannot kill one person to save the other, you should not kill an embryo to save the life of another.

"However, most people don't accept that embryos have the same moral value.

"Some people put it like this: embryos are like acorns, babies like oak saplings. We don't think of acorns as being as important as oaks. The same reasoning applies to human embryos developing into babies and adults."

Does an embryo produced in the laboratory have the same status as an embryo produced naturally by sperm and egg?

"If you look at two embryos, one cloned and the other produced by sperm and egg, and you do not know which is which, then you could not tell them apart. The only difference is how they are made.

"We should treat them with equal respect. How they are made is irrelevant to their moral value."

Is it right to ask a woman to go through treatment to produce human eggs that are intended for use in medical research given that this procedure can often be painful?

"In practice, most eggs donated for research are eggs which have been collected in the course of fertility treatment but which are surplus to requirements. The decision to take the risks of fertility treatment then lies with the woman and the fertility clinic.

"But for some research, women have been asked to donate eggs when they are not patients. This does cause some concern and is controversial now, especially where women are paid to donate eggs. Some would argue that the payment provides some recompense for the risks women run, and donation is essentially an altruistic [selfless] act. Others would say that payment induces women to volunteer for donation when it is not really safe, and should be forbidden."