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The ethics of changing the 14-day rule

21 December 2015
By Wendy Suffield
PhD candidate in School of Law, Keele University
Appeared in BioNews 833

At PET's recent conference, Professor Azim Surani claimed that permission to carry out experiments on embryos beyond the 14-day rule could make a huge difference to research. It may be time to review the ethical reasoning behind this time limit.

It is possible to reconsider the 14-day rule and still ascribe a minimal moral status to the human embryo. Generally people advocating research on embryos do not consider that they have any moral value. However, there is a position that moral value increases with development, with some intrinsic value from the earliest stages, because it is a new life with potential to develop into an entity with considerable moral status. By this argument, an embryo ought not to be used as the mere means to any end.

Currently research on embryos up to 14 days is considered ethical on the basis that it precedes individuation and the earliest formation of the neural system. No harm is done to an entity which a) may become more than one person and b) is unable to perceive pain. When the Warnock Committee laid the basis for 'how it is right to treat the embryo', the emphasis was to stop research before the formation of the primitive streak, the precursor of the nervous system. There was much discussion about the earliest time that pain could be perceived, and destruction at 14 days was a rather arbitrary compromise between gaining the utilitarian benefits of scientific research and alleviating public concern.

Others have commented on the need for public engagement in this debate. Extending the time limit might provoke public concern about using embryos for research. However, this is unwarranted. While there should be (and are) constraints on the use of embryos, the potential benefits to many people from extending the research period outweigh other considerations. There is no moral difference between the research embryo and the embryo developing in the womb. Yet there is an inconsistency in how the law treats in vitro and in vivo embryos.

In the UK, termination is regularly permitted up to 24 weeks if there is greater risk to the mental or physical health of a woman or her current family through continuation of the pregnancy. Termination is also legally carried out beyond 24 weeks in more limited circumstances. Extending the time frame for genome-editing research beyond 14 days for important medical purposes could potentially benefit many more people than currently benefit from a late termination. Many also consider that until the embryo is able to hold interests, requiring both brain activity and neural development, it cannot be harmed.

It is illogical to protect the 'special status' of embryos by destroying them at 14 days to prevent harm when using them for the greater good of medical research, while permitting much older fetuses to be terminated through abortion for the greater good of the pregnant woman. A minimal moral value can be trumped by considerations of existing people, and there are good reasons why this should and does happen. Provided that there is a greater good that may be derived from research on older embryos that may benefit a wider public, why keep the 14-day rule?

The moral value of an embryo may be minimal, but should not be ignored. In arguing that extending the 14-day rule does not infringe its moral value until it can perceive pain (and opinions vary on whether that might occur a few days or a few weeks later), I would not advocate permitting the use of the embryo for any purpose other than important medical research.

To this end, there are already safeguards in place. The HFEA, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, licensing process strictly regulates the purposes for which embryos may be used, limiting it to important medical research likely to benefit a wider public. However, it is important to maintain strict regulations on the purpose of this research, both to respect the moral value of the embryo and to allay public fears.

Extending the timeframe over which research can take place does not infringe the idea that the embryo is a special entity, and may enable research such as embryo editing through CRISPR/Cas9 to bring enormous benefits to society. We must continue to ensure that the human embryo is used in research only if it is absolutely necessary, the research's aims cannot be achieved any other way, and the purpose of the research is to alleviate suffering.

9 January 2017 - by Baroness Mary Warnock 
As the Progress Educational Trust's Patron, Baroness Mary Warnock, is made a Companion of Honour in the New Year Honours List 2017, she offers her thoughts on whether the 14-day limit on human embryo research (which she originally proposed in 1984) should be extended...
19 December 2016 - by Dr Cathy Herbrand 
Baroness Mary Warnock was the first speaker at this year's Progress Educational Trust Annual Conference. She is best known for The Warnock report, which was written more than 30 years ago and has shaped legislation in the UK and around the world...
23 May 2016 - by Dr Calum MacKellar 
Prohibiting what is useless and legalising what becomes useful in embryonic research without any in-depth ethical consideration may be pragmatic, but such an approach is ultimately just as irrational and meaningless as the concept of the human embryo's 'special status'...
16 May 2016 - by Dr Helen O'Neill 
Species-specific differences in terms of developmental timing and molecular expression patterns have restricted our true understanding of early human development...
9 May 2016 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Scientists from the UK and US have grown human embryos in the lab for 13 days after fertilisation – the longest ever recorded. This is beyond the stage when embryos would normally implant in the womb, but just before the 14-day legal limit in the UK...
14 December 2015 - by Lone Hørlyck 
The UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has made his first public statement on human genome editing. Speaking at the PET annual conference, Professor Sir Mark Walport said that the UK should lead the way in debating genome editing of human embryos...
7 September 2015 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Italy's prohibition on donating IVF embryos for research is not contrary to a right to private and family life....
4 February 2015 - by Sandy Starr 
The House of Commons voted by 382 to 128 to pass regulations permitting mitochondrial donation, a majority of 254...
17 June 2013 - by Dr John Gillott 
In her commentary in BioNews 707, Professor Alison Murdoch highlighted what she described as cultural problems affecting fertility treatment in the UK. In this commentary I consider some related cultural and governmental issues for embryo research....
25 February 2013 - by Maria Sheppard 
Human embryonic stem cell lines approved for federal funding in the USA, may have been derived from sperm or eggs of unconsenting donors...
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