Embryo as epiphenomenon: some cultural, social and economic forces driving the stem cell debate

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Our human embryonic stem cell debates are not simply about good or bad ethical arguments. The fetus and the embryo have instead become symbols for a larger set of value conflicts occasioned by social and cultural changes. Beneath our stem cell debates lie conflicts between those who would privilege scientific progress and individual choice and others who favour the sanctity of family life and traditional family roles. Also at work, on both the national and international levels, is the use of the embryo by newly emergent social groups to express resentment against cultural elites. The organisational needs of religious groups have also played a role, with the issue of protection of the embryo and fetus serving as a useful means of rallying organisational allegiance in the Roman Catholic and evangelical communities. Because the epiphenomenal moral positions on the status and use of the embryo are driven by the powerful social, cultural or economic forces beneath them, they will most likely change only with shifts in the underlying forces that sustain them.

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