The discovery, reported in Nature and Nature Cell Biology, that scientists can now grow an embryo in the lab for 13 days has for the first time challenged the 14-day rule originally proposed in the Warnock Report (see BioNews 850).
At the Progress Educational Trust (PET) conference on this topic in December, it was suggested that Brexit might dilute British influence on international policy for issues such as embryo research and its commercialisation. But the UK was the first country to introduce this rule, and seems increasingly likely to become the first to extend it, so I'd argue that Britain is still a pioneer in this area, leading the way for the rest of the world. Just as the Warnock Report laid the foundation for the regulation of assisted reproductive practices and embryo research across the world, any debate and decision on the extension of the 14-day rule will not only influence countries that have adopted it, but also countries that have yet to introduce any regulations.
For example, in Ireland they have their own version of the Warnock Report – the Report of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, and the subsequent Irish Council for Bioethics Report on stem cell research. Both recommended the introduction of regulations supporting embryo research and the adoption of the 14-day rule. However, successive Irish governments have consistently failed to enact any legislation, leaving embryos in Ireland without any clear legal protection.
As with any new scientific development, simply having the technological capability does not mean that we should permit its use, but we do have an obligation to debate it. This is an opportunity to review the law as it stands and consider the implications of an extension of the rule. For Ireland, a revision of the rule in the UK is likely to lead to renewed impetus to introduce the awaited legislation, but there are at least two further implications from debate in the UK.
At the PET conference, discussions on the moral status of the embryo largely reflected a revision of previous debates on the issue. In the UK it is currently permissible to conduct research on an embryo up to 14 days, and any moral reflection must focus on the embryo beyond this point. This is accepted in law. However, recent developments in embryonic research mean that it may soon be possible to extend the viability of an embryo in the lab beyond 14 days. At the conference, it was suggested that discussion on the extension of this rule could lead to revision of previous arguments on the moral status of the embryo, giving those with a deep opposition a platform to attempt to repeal the law as it stands.
Ireland traditionally has a strong and well-funded pro-life lobby backed by the Catholic Church that continues to have an influence on the ongoing abortion debate. There is a real risk that opening debate in the UK will be taken as evidence by the strong pro-life lobby in Ireland that the scientific community is forcing this research and that it lacks public support.
Opponents in Ireland will also use the UK debate as proof that slippery-slope arguments are not unfounded and that permitting embryo research in Ireland, no matter how restrictive, will inevitably open the door for more permissive regulations in the future. The fact that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 came after a long period of debate and discussion, that the provisions on embryo research came after a free vote in parliament, and that the HFEA tightly regulates the research will be irrelevant. Those who oppose embryo research will argue that it is scientific knowledge and technology that will dictate laws on embryo research (an argument that is not without merit) rather than any moral principles.
In framing the debate in the UK, the scientific merit of the research must be made clear. The head of the HFEA, Sally Cheshire, noted at the PET conference that there are currently only approximately 20 ongoing projects using human embryos in the UK. With such low uptake in embryo research up to 14 days, there will need to be a strong scientific argument to extend the limit when the research does not appear to be maximised under the current rules.
A decision also needs to be made on whether this debate will serve as an opportunity to review the current regulatory framework or be limited to an extension of the current rule. If it is the latter, the starting point of the discussion should be confined to the moral implications of extending the rule beyond 14 days. It must be made clear that, although there is an ongoing debate on the moral status of the embryo, the law as it stands in the UK accepts research up to this point.
As with the original Warnock Report, the UK is heading into uncharted territory. It is considering a revision to a rule that has served as a template for research across the world. With this in mind, it should be cognisant of the ripple effect any discussion is likely to have on the research outside of its borders.