Scientists want to remove ethical limitation on human embryo research

The 14-day rule is already a bridge too far

April 13, 2021

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) will recommend abolishing a longstanding ethical limitation on human embryo research. For decades the scientific community has observed the so-call 14-day rule. This ethical guideline—first formulated in the United Kingdom under the Warnock Commission in the mid-1980s—requires that embryos may only be gestated for 14 days after conception in the lab. The ISSCR wants the rule lifted so that human embryos can be developed to a more mature stage.

The 14-day rule was issued in the aftermath of the first successful IVF birth in the U.K. in 1978. The rationale for the rule is that at 14 days post-conception the developmental marker of the “primitive streak” appears, along which the central nervous system develops. Admittedly arbitrary, this marker has been an important benchmark for embryo research.

Acknowledging the plurality of views on the moral status of the human embryo even back then, the Warnock Commission recognized that some limits were necessary.  

. . . as we have said, it would be idle to pretend that there is not a wide diversity in moral feelings, whether these arise from religious, philosophical or humanist beliefs. What is common (and this too we have discovered from the evidence) is that people generally want some principles or other to govern the development and use of the new techniques. There must be some barriers that are not to be crossed, some limits fixed, beyond which people must not be allowed to go. Nor is such a wish for containment a mere whim or fancy. The very existence of morality depends on it. A society which had no inhibiting limits, especially in the areas with which we have been concerned, questions of birth and death, of the setting up of families, and the valuing of human life, would be a society without moral scruples. And this nobody wants. (Warnock Report, p. 2)

Well, at least nobody wanted the barriers to be crossed until now. According to Antonio Regalado, writing in MIT Technology Review, the ISSCR “is not going to set a specific new time limit, like 28 or 36 days . . . the society wants to move to a more flexible approach.” 

For those who are pro-life, the 14-day rule is already a bridge too far. This rule permits the generation of human embryos in the lab and requires researchers to destroy them by the 14th day. So, in fact, the 14-day rule is in essence a mandate to kill human embryos. 

And, if members of the ISSCR are honest, they must agree that human life begins at conception. That is, after all, why they want the 14-day limit abolished. They want a policy that will allow them to perform research on living members of the species Homo sapiens from conception onward. They want permission to research using living human embryos, not mouse embryos, dog embryos, or other species. 

Currently, in the United States, human embryo research may not be done with tax payer dollars. Since 1996, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, attached to the appropriations bills for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education, restricts the use of federal funds for creating, destroying, or knowingly injuring human embryos. Each year the amendment faces challenges to overturn it. The jury is out on what the stance of the Biden administration will be.

To make matters yet more complicated, two different research teams have developed “embryo-like entities” called human blastoids, which resemble human embryos at the blastocyst stage. According to the scientists, these blastoids behave like early-stage embryos at about the 2-3 week stage of development. 

If these human blastoids behave like early-stage human embryos, including attaching themselves to the petri dish in a way similar to the way the embryo attaches to the uterine wall, how are they to be distinguished from human embryos?  Case Western Reserve and Harvard University bioethicist, Insoo Hyun, observed in a recent NPR interview that these experiments raise “a very interesting question of, at what point does an embryo model become a real embryo.” Indeed!

Are these really human embryos or does calling them “blastoids” only obscure the facts?  As, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, staff ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center has said, “Scientists face the perennial temptation to depersonalize early human life, and to treat embryos as objects. Human beings are so sacred, that we must particularly reverence them in their origins, in the way they come into the world.”

Research using human subjects, whether at the embryonic stage or at the end of life, requires utmost respect for the nature and sanctity of human life. Until researchers can be sure that they are not crossing the line by trampling on the sanctity of human embryos, they should resist those experiments. The end does not always justify the means to get there.

C. Ben Mitchell

Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is a research fellow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. In 2020, he served as a member of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board. Read More