07/12/2013 01:51 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT

What to do with Orphan Embryos

Blastocyst. Computer artwork of a 100-cell blastocyst embryo.

"Did you get all the answers right on your test today?"

"Did you make any progress on your research project?"

These are the typical questions we ask.

We are asking the wrong questions. The most important question we need to ask and most frequently: "Did you ask any good questions, today?"

Perhaps if we had done that decades ago, we wouldn't be faced with the moral and ethical conundrum we are facing today.

What are we to do with orphaned embryos?

I often think that people don't ask good questions because they fear that the answer will contradict their ideology. So we avoid the questions that could uncover many more unintended consequences.

The first question that needed to be asked long, long ago was what ethical system do we want as the foundation of our country, of our decision-making. Will it be a system that prioritizes individual rights, or prioritizes responsibilities, obligations and duties to the community?

These are two distinct ethical systems. One is deontological -- moral absolutes -- the Judeo-Christian ethic and its secular mirror Kantian ethics. These are systems that emphasize duties, obligations and responsibilities rather than individual rights. They prioritize the intrinsic value of a human being.

Then there are systems that are more individual-oriented: utilitarian, self -regarding ethics. Rights are prioritized. These systems are based on moral and cultural relativism and the idea that it is possible to make personal decisions that don't impact others, hence-self-regarding.

I can't think of any decision being made by anyone that does not impact others. And that includes someone on a deserted island or on top of a mountain searching for the meaning of life.

For an excellent overview of ethical systems, read Margaret Somerville's The Ethical Imagination. And to open your mind to new ways of questioning, read Michael Sandel's two books: Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can't Buy.

So, what will we do with the "left-over" embryos?

It depends. Are they things? Are they commodities to be bought, sold or thrown away at the end of the day? Are they potential life? If they are potential life, who is responsible for them? Do we need laws regarding their abandonment like laws regarding the abandonment of one's living children? Should they be treated as experimental tissue if their "owners" don't want them?

There has been a proposal by a bioethicist that the embryos go to science rather than waste them. "Waste them?" Like food that has gone past its freshness date?

Glenna Owen spoke about her left-over embryos. I am quoting from the National Post article.

"It's kind of akin to your parents selling your childhood home: You don't want to live there anymore, but it is sad to see it go. As humans we just form these attachments."

"As humans we just form these attachments." Is she suggesting that her attachment to her childhood home is the same as to her genetic material-her potential children? They are both things-in the marketplace-that change hands?

I remember having a discussion with an intern about the language used regarding premature babies. The question asked was could this baby be salvaged. Salvaged? That's language we use for cars that have been severely damaged in accidents, or junk in the salvage yard. But children? Do we want to associate the word salvage with the weakest of our children any more than we ought to associate the word waste with embryos?

Back to the Post.I leave you with the words of Gloria Poirier, acting director of the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada, regarding the donation of these orphaned embryos to science:

"If it was me, I wouldn't be able to do that. It's worse than abortion."