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What's so special about the status of the embryo?

30 January 2017
Appeared in BioNews 886

The fifth and final session of the Progress Educational Trust (PET) conference 'Rethinking the Ethics of Embryo Research: Genome Editing, 14 Days and Beyond' covered a range of perspectives on the status of the human embryo. It was a fitting end to a day that had included everything from the furore surrounding the cloning of Dolly the sheep 20 years ago to cutting-edge developments in genome editing today.

Such technological advances in reproductive and genetic science offer huge promise to improve human health. The challenge is to ensure they result in ethical scientific progress, which in turn requires the kind of open, informed debate that closed the conference.

Alison Murdoch, professor of reproductive medicine at Newcastle University's Institute of Genetic Medicine, started the session by considering the embryo from the patients' perspective. This is a crucial viewpoint, since the vast majority of human embryos used in research are those donated by couples undergoing IVF treatment.

Drawing on published studies (1,2), Professor Murdoch said that many patients draw a distinction between embryos that have most potential to produce a baby, and surplus embryos that may be of poorer quality. The moral and social value ascribed to these spare IVF embryos by many couples is, accordingly, different to that for embryos transferred during treatment – which are viewed as 'potential babies'.

Professor Murdoch also said that patients often prefer to donate spare frozen embryos to research, rather than donating them to other couples undergoing IVF. Such insights provide valuable information on how best to support patients who are making complex decisions about freezing and donating surplus embryos – particularly when they are also dealing with the demands of IVF treatment itself.

In the second talk, Lord George Carey – former Archbishop of Canterbury – addressed the broad question 'Should religious convictions be allowed to determine the progress of scientific research?' He first reminded the audience that religious communities have always held diverse views on scientific progress. A key issue, he argued, is the motive of those engaged in research – in the case of medical science, this is the development of new therapies to heal many people.

Recalling some of the arguments used by the pro-life group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) in the lead-up to the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, Lord Carey warned against firing such debates with 'heat rather than light'.  He stressed the importance of considering consequences – both deleterious and humanitarian – when making decisions about areas such as stem cell research.

Lord Carey asked whether research on human embryos 'was such a moral violation of what it is to be human that it should never be done'. He believes that frozen embryos are not morally equivalent to children. In his view, careful and respectable research on embryos is justified, while 'wanton abuse' of embryos is not. Lord Carey concluded by saying that although religious bodies have no intrinsic authority to oppose scientific research, they have every right to contribute to the debate.

The next speaker, Dr David Jones – director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre – held a very different viewpoint to Lord Carey. He began by defining the word 'embryo' as a stage of life, rather than a distinct entity, akin to terms such as 'neonate, fledgling and adolescent'. A human embryo is an embryonic human, according to Dr Jones. As such, the destruction of human embryos should be regarded as homicide, even if they have no awareness and can feel no pain.

Alluding to recent media discussion of 'echo chambers' – a tendency to talk only to people who share our views, and so not hear differing opinions – Dr Jones went on to welcome Brexit as it will likely remove the 'malign influence' of the UK over human embryo research policy in Europe. A version of Dr Jones's talk has since been published online (3).

The final talk in this session was given by Stephen Wilkinson, professor of bioethics at Lancaster University. Addressing the question 'How to think about embryos', Professor Wilkinson first acknowledged the 'hard and interesting' nature of the topic and further asked, 'What is moral status and which beings have it?' Using the definition of being able to feel pain, and being capable of complex mental states, he argued that 'species membership' was not the most important factor, since great apes and dolphins also share these qualities.

Professor Wilkinson further argued that potential humans should not have the same rights as actual humans – in the same way that he, as a potential pensioner, does not yet have the rights of one (for the benefit of our overseas readers, a pensioner in the UK is someone who has retired from the workforce and is eligible for benefits, such as free travel on public transport). As potential humans, embryos are not protected by UK law in other contexts, such as contraception and early abortion, he noted.

A lively discussion ensued, chaired by Fiona Fox, chair of trustees at PET and founder and chief executive of the Science Media Centre. The debate over the status of human embryos and their use in research has been long running. New developments, such the creation of artificial eggs and sperm from body cells (thus challenging the idea that life can only begin in one way) and the ability to keep embryos alive for 13 days in culture, mean that the need for ongoing discussion in this area has never been greater.

PET would like to thank the sponsors of its conference – Merck, the Anne McLaren Memorial Trust Fund, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, the London Women's Clinic, the Medical Research Council and Caribou Biosciences.

6 February 2017 - by Dr Ciara Staunton 
Some have suggested that, after Brexit, British influence on rules about embryo research will be diluted. But this is far from true...
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