The biggest news of the week has nothing to do with the U.S. presidential election. The bigger scoop is that scientists have grown human embryos in the lab for 13 days after fertilization. The previous record was 9 days. The work was stopped after 13 days’ maturation because many societies ban research on human embryos that are more than 14 days old, the latest point at which natural twinning can occur and at which, according to the reasoning behind the ban, a unique individual exists.
This work was done on embryos “donated” from an in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic. Potential applications include using older human embryos to text the toxicity of new drugs (pushing the dose concentration until toxicity occurs), studying birth defects, trying to understand how to grow stem cells into embryos or something like it, and improving the efficiency of IVF. In all cases, embryos would be destroyed (that is, killed on purpose) for the sake of research, and if “donated” embryos were not available, then some would have to be created solely for research. So the embryos are like lab animals, except that PETA wouldn’t get upset.
If, as I hold, human life begins at conception—and the recent “flash of light” observed by Northwestern University researchers at fertilization is provocative, at least—then keeping the embryos alive longer is ethical only if the subsequent intent is to bring them to term. Turning a human stem cell into a human embryo is an unethical enterprise at its core, as is using the embryos for pharmaceutical toxicology experiments. If insights into birth defects or IVF efficiency could be gained without killing the embryos on purpose, that could be ethical.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.