J Med Ethics 39:533-536 doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-101065
  • Reproductive ethics
  • Paper

Embryo deaths in reproduction and embryo research: a reply to Murphy's double effect argument

  1. Katrien Devolder
  1. Correspondence to Dr Katrien Devolder, Bioethics Institute Ghent, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, Ghent University, Blandijnberg 2, Ghent 9000, Belgium;katrien.devolder{at}
  • Received 3 September 2012
  • Revised 1 October 2012
  • Accepted 11 October 2012
  • Published Online First 8 November 2012


The majority of embryos created in natural reproduction die spontaneously within a few weeks of conception. Some have argued that, therefore, if one believes the embryo is a person (in the normative sense) one should find ‘natural’ reproduction morally problematic. An extension of this argument holds that, if one accepts embryo deaths in natural reproduction, consistency requires that one also accepts embryo deaths that occur in (i) assisted reproduction via in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and (ii) embryo research. In a recent paper in this journal, Timothy Murphy criticises both the initial argument and its extension. Murphy argues that double-effect reasoning can justify embryo deaths both in natural reproduction and IVF, but not in embryo research. Thus, according to Murphy, one can, without being inconsistent, (1) believe the embryo is a person and accept natural reproduction and IVF, and (2) accept natural reproduction and IVF, while rejecting embryo research on the ground that it involves embryo deaths. I show that Murphy's argument is problematic because double effect cannot justify embryo deaths in standard IVF practices. The problem is that the proportionality criterion of double effect is not met by such practices. Thus, Murphy's argument fails to support (1) and (2). An implication of his argument failing to support (2) is that it does not defeat the position I have defended in the past—that if one accepts standard IVF practices one should also accept embryo research, including research with embryos created solely for that purpose.

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