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The Return of the Embryo Research Debate?
Richard M. Doerflinger, M.A. | 13 May 2021
Remember the national debate about human embryo research?
It was highly visible in 1994 when a Human Embryo Research Panel advising the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommended federal funding for many experiments in which human embryos would be harmed and destroyed. Congress responded by passing an appropriations rider, the Dickey amendment, prohibiting such funding – and that law remains in place today.
In 1998 researchers isolated stem cells from one-week-old human embryos and said these cells would revolutionize medical research and treatment. The Clinton Administration allowed funding for this research, claiming it was legal as long as federal funds were not directly used for the act of destroying embryos to obtain the stem cells. This later became a debate about the use of cloning to create large numbers of embryos for such research.
The Clinton policy was reined in somewhat by President Bush, then restored by President Obama. It was rendered largely irrelevant not by new laws but by scientific progress: Embryonic stem cells did not produce miracle cures and were far less useful than ethically legitimate alternatives, including adult stem cells as well as reprogrammed adult cells known as “induced pluripotent stem cells.” This year even New York, which had devoted enormous amounts of state money to embryonic stem cell research, decided to cancel that program.[i]
Have researchers learned their lesson and stopped coming up with reasons to exploit and kill the youngest human beings in the name of science?
Not a chance. Recent developments include these:
- Researchers have been proposing (and in some countries attempting) the use of the technique known as CRISPR to edit the genetic makeup of human embryos. This "germline" engineering, which could prevent genetic disease or "enhance" mental or physical traits, would irreversibly affect all that individual’s descendants. But scientists assure the public that they will destroy the embryos after studying them. Or as one headline said: “Editing human embryos is okay — but don't turn them into people yet, geneticists say.”[ii] Yes, the human species is at risk of being remade by geneticists who don’t know that people begin as embryos.
- Other researchers have used stem cells to create what some call “artificial embryos” or “embryo models” for research – first in mice and now in humans.[iii] Again, the goal is to use them for research purposes and then destroy them.
- Dovetailing with these developments is “progress” (if one can call it that) in sustaining mouse embryos for up to half their gestational period in an artificial environment, using a pressurized environment in rotating bottles. Doing the same with human embryos could produce a “baby in a bottle” at a stage where he or she is developing a brain, other internal organs, and limbs. One account says researchers can conduct “studies where embryos are grown to up to 40 days and then destroyed.”[iv]
- And American and Chinese researchers have injected human embryonic stem cells into macaque monkey embryos, creating hybrid human-animal embryos or “chimeras.” The lead researcher says that before the embryos died, the human cells had given rise to "several… cell lineages."[v] What kinds of cells are of greatest interest? Well, one scientist says this is a useful model for studying the early development of human brain diseases. Others may want to grow human transplant organs in animals.
These developments have given rise to proposals to eliminate what is called “the 14-day rule.” That is a policy of not allowing human embryos to develop past 14 days in the laboratory. It is written into law in some countries, like Great Britain, but not in the U.S. It is among the guidelines on embryo research issued by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). That organization is now discussing a recommendation to drop that rule,[vi] so manipulations of the embryo can proceed much later in development.
What is wrong with the 14-day rule?
First, it is based on an outdated idea that the embryo does not become an organized individual until the appearance of what is called the “primitive streak” at 14 days. The term “pre-embryo” was even coined for the early embryo before that time. But even the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel rejected that discredited term. For many years we have known that the newly conceived embryo develops in an organized fashion and begins deciding the fate of various cells from the beginning.[vii] The problem with the existing rule is that 14 days is 14 days too late.
Second, implementing the rule requires a further act of egregious disrespect to the earliest human beings. Once the embryo reaches that 14th day, the requirement is not to begin showing some respect for that life but to destroy it.
Third, as the ISSCR’s evolving policy demonstrates, even the rule’s proponents don’t take it seriously. When researchers did not know how to maintain embryos in the lab up to 14 days, the rule was issued to claim that researchers could regulate themselves to head off binding legal limits. Now researchers think they can take the technology a step further, and the alleged moral limit will adjust accordingly.
Asked whether he consulted ethical or religious advisors, the lead Israeli researcher proposing “baby in a bottle” experiments replied: “The ISSCR is my rabbi.”[viii] This is very convenient since the ISSCR tends to treat researchers’ requests to eliminate current limits as the voice of God.
Laws in the U.S. have generally not fallen into the “14-day rule” trap. Either they allow harmful experimentation on human embryos without a defined limit (or even fund it, as in New York until now), or they prohibit it from the beginning.
Federal laws and regulations governing the use of federal funds forbid creating human embryos for research or subjecting them to harmful or destructive experiments – and there is a moratorium on funding research in human-animal chimeras. These laws apply regardless of the stage of development.
So do laws in several states that ban destructive research, whether publicly or privately funded. For example:
In South Dakota, it is illegal to destroy a human embryo outside a woman’s body at any stage, subject the embryo to substantial risk for research purposes, or experiment on cells or tissues obtained by doing these things.[ix]
In Louisiana, the human embryo created by in vitro fertilization is a “juridical person,” to be used “solely for the support and contribution of the complete development of human in utero implantation,” and use of the embryo solely for research purposes is forbidden.[x]
In Minnesota, whoever “uses or permits the use of a living human conceptus for any type of scientific, laboratory research or other experimentation except to protect the life or health of the conceptus” is breaking the law.[xi]
How can these laws exist when the Supreme Court has declared a constitutional right to abortion?
In fact, the court has long recognized a legitimate interest in protecting unborn human life. Upholding a ban on partial-birth abortion, the court said the ban “expresses respect for the dignity of human life,” and it affirmed the government's "legitimate interests in regulating the medical profession to promote respect for life, including the life of the unborn."[xii] Tragically, the court has held that a woman’s liberty to be free of an unwanted pregnancy overrides that interest. But protecting an embryo from destructive laboratory research poses no such conflict.
In short, state and federal lawmakers are free to show respect for embryonic human beings, preventing the bizarre “brave new world” experiments planned by researchers with no such respect. The only question is whether the political will exists to do so.
[i] Smith, Wesley J., "New York to Stop Funding Embryonic Stem-Cell Research," National Review, April 19, 2021. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/new-york-to-stop-funding-embryonic-stem-cell-research/.
[ii] Potenza, Alessandra, “Editing Human Embryos is Okay – But Don't Turn Them Into People Yet, Geneticists Say," The Verge, August 3, 2017. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/3/16071810/gene-editing-embryos-crispr-research-ethics.
[iii] Lee, Tara Sandra, et al., "Policymakers Must Prevent Unethical 'Baby in a Bottle' Science Experiments," Newsweek, May 7, 2021. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021. https://www.newsweek.com/policymakers-must-prevent-unethical-baby-bottle-science-experiments-opinion-1589006.
[iv] Delbert, Caroline, “Scientists Grew a Mouse Embryo Outside the Womb. Are Humans Next?”, Popular Mechanics, March 18, 2021. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a35876748/scientists-grow-mouse-embryo-outside-womb-are-humans-next/.
[v] Thompson, Dennis, "Scientists Create Monkey-Human Embryos," HealthDay, April 15, 2021. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/news/20210416/scientists-create-monkey-human-embryos#:~:text=The%20human%2Fmonkey%20chimeras%20--%20organisms%20that%20contain%20cells,a%20team%20of%20Chinese%20and%20U.S.%20researchers%20reported.
[vi] Regalado, Antonio, “Scientists Plan to Drop 14-Day Embryo Rule, A Key Limit On Stem Cell Research”, MIT Technology Review, March 16, 2021. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/03/16/1020879/scientists-14-day-limit-stem-cell-human-embryo-research/.
[vii] Pearson, Helen, "Your Destiny, From Day One," Nature, 418, 14-15 (2002), July 4, 2002. Article retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.nature.com/articles/418014a.
[viii] Regalado, Antonio, "A Mouse Embryo Has Been Grown In an Artificial Womb – Humans Could Be Next," MIT Technology Review, March 17, 2021. Article Retrieved on May 10, 2021: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/03/17/1020969/mouse-embryo-grown-in-a-jar-humans-next/.
[ix] South Dakota Codified Laws §§34-14-16 through 34-14-19.
[x] Louisiana Revised Statutes 9 §§121 through 131.
[xi] Minnesota Statutes §§145.421 and 145.422.
[xii] Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2007) at 157, 158.
Richard M. Doerflinger, M.A.
Member – Pontifical Academy for Life