How Human Embryonic Research Has Changed Over the Decades

Public opinion has changed and so has politics. But policies remain surprisingly similar.

Photo by Amina Filkins

Our Starting Point: The Research Panel Report

The Basic Rundown

  • When it’s okay to give federal funding to such research
  • When it requires review to be given federal funding
  • When it’s not okay to give federal funding

Why does this Research Matter?

  • Studying embryos coming from individuals who have undergone IVF in order to better understand how to improve the low success rate of this procedure
  • Creating diagnostic tests that are non-invasive to find which embryos have a higher chance of implantation
  • Creating a pooled database of molecular and biochemistry-related characteristics of preimplantation embryos to aid with high-quality research
  • Studying the effects of cryopreservation (freezing) of unfertilized oocytes
  • Understanding the effects of time on oocytes → fetal and neonatal oocytes have been exposed to far fewer external factors than adult oocytes allowing for this research
  • Creating and testing new contraceptives
  • Studying how to create human parthenotes (further described below)
  • Studying pluripotent stem cells derived from the embryo (I’ve written lots about stem cells so you can read more here, here, and here!)
Some of the applications of this research. Gif by author.

Moral Personhood: The Most Complex Piece of the Puzzle

  • Some believe this beginning to be when the being gains sentience and has the ability to feel pain
  • Others believe it’s when brain activity or function begins
  • And yet others think it begins with the gain of consciousness, reasoning, and a sense of self

The human emrbyo is entitled to profound respect; but this respect does not necessarily encompass the full legal and moral rights attributed to persons.

The Considerations & Guidelines

  • Research using ex utero (outside of the uterus) embryos has lots of research benefits that can help countless people
  • The moral status of a preimplantation embryo is not the same compared to an infant or child. These embryos cannot possibly develop into conscious human beings, and therefore warrant a different moral status, though much discussion is still needed (hence the existence of this panel)
  • Simply withholding federal funds doesn’t stop this research—it makes it less regulated as they’ll begin to use private funding

No Compensation For Donors’ Time

Embryos Must Not be Kept Longer than 14 Days

The very early stages of an embryo. Image by author.
The blastocyst stage. Image by author.
The formation of the bilaminar disk. Image by author.
The formation of the endoderm layer. Image by author; inspired by Ninja Nerd.
The formation of the mesoderm and endoderm. Image by author; inspired by Ninja Nerd.

The primitive streak acts as “a proxy for individuation.”

[The primitive streak] marks the start of a process called gastrulation, which is when the cells of the body start moving and separating into the beginnings of what’s a creature rather than just a ball of cells.

Informed Consent

Oocyte Fertilization For Research

  1. There is no other way to test a hypothesis for the research other than to fertilize eggs expressly for this. Examples might include studies that look at how fertilization itself works.
  2. The research can’t be validated if embryos aren’t created in this way. Examples may include testing drugs and wanting to ensure they have no effects on future reproductive capability and developmental potential.
  1. No extra surgeries should be done on women donating oocytes than they would normally be undergoing. For example, if a woman is undergoing egg removal independently of the study, their eggs may be used for the study provided they give informed consent
  2. Women must give informed consent explicitly for the purposes of fertilizing their oocytes for research
  3. No payments will be given to donors (discussed above)

Where Can the Embryos Come From?

  • The individual gave consent for the use of their gametes prior to their death, meaning consent to organ transplantation is not enough
  • Their next of kin provided consent for the use of the woman’s gametes and ovary specifically

When the Panel Said “No, Thank You”

How Will These Regulations Be Enforced?

The 3 P’s Over Time: Policies, Politics, Public Opinion

The 14-Day Rule


  1. Includes research that does not require review from an ethics board but may require reporting
  2. Includes research that requires oversight and discussion
  3. Includes research that is unsafe at the moment or unjustifiable and should therefore not be practiced

Public Opinion & Politics

Image by author.

No Compensation For Donors’ Time


Public Opinion and Politics


Policies & Politics

Public Opinion

Closing Thoughts



Science communicator trying to learn something new everyday | Published in Start It Up, Predict & The Writing Cooperative

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Parmin Sedigh

Science communicator trying to learn something new everyday | Published in Start It Up, Predict & The Writing Cooperative