Embryo research: Should 14-day legal limit be extended?

Research involving growing a human embryo in a laboratory has had a breakthrough, but it had to be stopped before reaching the set legal limit of 14 days. This has raised the desire by scientists to have the limit extended beyond two weeks, but there is still the question on ethics. 

A doctor is silhouetted as he walks past a poster showing images of the development of a human fetus at Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori's private clinic in Rome June 6, 2005. | REUTERS/ALESSIA PIERDOMENICO

"The special status once enjoyed by human embryos in the eyes of policy makers has tragically disappeared and now, human embryos are viewed just as a collection of cells," Nola Leach, chief executive of public policy organization CARE, said in interview with Christian Today. "Whether we push past the 14 day limit or not, we would still have fundamental ethical concerns about the way human embryos are being treated because a human embryo is a human life and therefore is intrinsically valuable."

According to The Guardian, 14 days is when an embryo is no longer likely to be split into identical twins; thus, there is this odd notion that the limit is because God could not give a soul to an embryo that could still become two human beings within two weeks.

The recommendation made in 1984 by the Warnock Report, however, explains that the formation of the primitive streak, which is around the 15th day, "marks the beginning of individual development of the embryo," thus they "regarded an earlier date than this as a desirable end-point for research." This was put into the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 in the United Kingdom, which says that it cannot authorize, among other things, "keeping or using an embryo after the appearance of the primitive streak."

However, with the fresh breakthrough wherein scientists were able to keep a lab-grown embryo for 13 days, researchers reportedly see that an additional seven days would provide additional learning in terms of scientific and therapeutic research.

"We can now, for the very first time, study human development at this very critical stage of our lives, at the time of implantation," said Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who led the research at Cambridge University, as quoted by The Guardian.

Philippa Taylor, head of public policy for Christian Medical Fellowship and medical ethics adviser to CARE, said that she "would be very concerned about extending the limit as these [embryos] are very young human beings," adding that the 14-day limit already acknowledges that embryos have a special status that needs to be maintained.

She also said that, first, there has to be a debate centering on the ethics of researching embryos and if they should be assigned a special status; and second, there has to be a discussion on public involvement and who are supposed to make decisions.

Professor David Jones, director of the Roman Catholic Anscombe Bioethics Centre, believes that any embryo research is unethical.

"In the future this may even be seen as the first step towards culturing babies outside the womb, where the child is not only conceived outside the protection of his or her mother's body but no such protection is even envisaged at any stage," he told Christian Today. "Human life and human pregnancy should not be separated in this way. On a technical level it is a scientific breakthrough but it is also a further step away from humane and ethical science and a further step towards an increasingly inhuman future."

Practising Christian John Bryant, emeritus professor of cell and molecular biology at Exeter University, is more liberal in his view, saying that an embryo has the potential to be a person only when it is implanted in a womb. When it comes to extending the 14-day limit, however, he said that "ethical caution" should be taken since that's beyond the ability for an embryo to be normally implanted in a womb. He disagrees with ectogenesis, wherein a fetus is attempted to be developed outside of a womb, saying that "such research is totally wrong."