How Human Embryonic Research Has Changed Over the Decades
Public opinion has changed and so has politics. But policies remain surprisingly similar.
We’ve all heard about the ethics around embryo research. You may have even thought to yourself: how much of the embryo research going on do I find ethical and acceptable?
Well, to help you make up your mind, we’ll be going back to 1994 when the National Institutes of Health Human Embryo Research Panel came out with the Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel, September 1994.
It’s crucial to understand what the ethical considerations were at the time as well as how the considerations and policies have evolved over time. So let’s construct a puzzle of the past three decades around this type of research and the ethics surrounding it.
Before moving forward, you may need some scientific background to best understand the terminology used here. The first section of this article is a good start. So is this brief section of the report itself titled Summary of Development of the Human Embryo Up to Closure of the Neural Tube. And be sure to watch this video on in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Finally, here’s a table of contents in case you want to skip around.
II. The 14-Day Rule Over Time
b. Public Opinion & Politics
III. No Compensation For Donors’ Time In Detail
b. Public Opinion & Politics
IV. Parthenogenesis Over Time
a. Policies & Politics
b. Public Opinion
Our Starting Point: The Research Panel Report
The Basic Rundown
Roughly three decades ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) commissioned a group of science and policy experts to give an opinion on human embryo research and…
- 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
It’s important to note that the embryo research referred to here only encompasses embryos outside of the human body (or preimplantation embryos) which are sourced from in vitro fertilization (IVF), oocytes activated through sources other than sperm, and some others.
As a quick terminology refresher/introduction: preimplantation embryos are exactly what they sound like—embryos before they implant in the uterine wall. Usually, they come from entirely external sources like IVF but in this case, they also include embryos created in vivo (or in the body) prior to implantation.
Why does this Research Matter?
A critical thing to always think about when it comes to research is why it matters. Who does it help and how? The report dedicates an entire section to exploring this so here is a quick summary of some of the research preimplantation embryos could help with:
- 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 these topics are now better understood, as you might expect due to the passage of time, but they’re included here as I’m dissecting the report as it was written.
Moral Personhood: The Most Complex Piece of the Puzzle
Now that we understand the importance of this research, let’s take a look at the ethics surrounding it.
You’ve probably heard the term “moral personhood” in lots of discussions including those involving abortion. This ethical discussion is all about which beings merit rights equal to that of a human adult or child and which beings are differentially treated.
It’s crucial to note that this discussion is based on an individual’s personal opinions and everything discussed down below is based solely on what’s stated in the report.
The panel considered two approaches to this discussion: single criterion views and a pluralistic approach. Let’s begin with the single criterion views.
As the name of this approach implies, there are many different views within it. What all of the views have in common is that they consider a single condition that must be met in order for a being to have equal status as a human adult.
Some view a being as equal as soon as fertilization occurs and therefore consider the criterion for personhood the fusion of two distinct genotypes. Others holding similar views believe personhood begins with conception though they have varying opinions of when conception is. Regardless, all of these individuals think no research should ever be done on embryos unless it is also considered ethical to be done on a fetus or newborn.
While individuals are subject to their own views, many scientists disagree with the above arguments as they open the door to some paradoxes. For instance, twinning can occur after fertilization. Are twins therefore not beings that merit moral personhood? As well, roughly 60% of embryos are aborted naturally within the first few days or weeks after fertilization. Using that logic, nature is aborting individuals with moral personhood every single day.
Another group adopting single criterion views believe research on preimplantation embryos should be acceptable or at least less strictly monitored than those on children and adults. They still have different views on the beginning of personhood, however.
- 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
It should be mentioned that these views offer paradoxes as well. For example, the last view would exclude newborns from being seen as having moral personhood as they do not have a full ability to reason.
An entirely different school of thought is all about a more pluralistic view that takes into account many factors including some of those mentioned above alongside the ability to survive outside of the womb, human form, and others.
They consider the idea of moral personhood a spectrum rather than a switch that is flipped at a single point in time. For instance, a preimplantation embryo should be treated with more respect than individual oocytes or sperm since it’s further along the spectrum while still not deserving of the same respect as an adult per se.
This view is adopted by most ethics committees of the time including The U.S. Ethics Advisory Board of 1979, the Warnock Committee in Great Britain in 1984, and the Canadian Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies in 1993. The Ethics Advisory Board perhaps put this idea best when they stated:
The human emrbyo is entitled to profound respect; but this respect does not necessarily encompass the full legal and moral rights attributed to persons.
So how did all of these views inform the panel? Since most single criterion views attributed limited personhood to a preimplantation embryo and the pluralistic view allowed for reasonable research, the panel decided that research can be conducted under certain guidelines.
The Considerations & Guidelines
This is likely the most fascinating part: what did the panel decide? Well, before getting into that, let’s take a look at the 3 main points they considered to inform their decision-making (in simplified form). They decided that…
- 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
What did they have to say in terms of some basic research guidelines?
Much of it is exactly as you’d expect: only trained professionals should be dealing with this research, donors of gametes or embryos must give consent, and some other standard ones.
Other guidelines are ones you may not have heard of before, with two notable ones being: compensation can be given to accommodate the donors’ expenses such as travelling and medication but they cannot be compensated for their time, and preimplantation embryos must not be kept any longer than 14 days in vitro (in the lab). Let’s further unpack these two.
No Compensation For Donors’ Time
The biggest concern cited when it comes to no financial compensation for the time donors spend on donating gametes or embryos is undue inducement. This is where an offer is proposed that’s simply “too good to refuse” and the donor is induced into doing something they otherwise might not do without the pressure of money.
However, the panel made an exception in their recommendation with regards to embryos coming from IVF clinics where anonymous gamete donors were compensated already. This can be an acceptable source even though the gamete donors were paid as not to put too many obstacles in the way of research.
Embryos Must Not be Kept Longer than 14 Days
This guideline is commonly referred to as the 14-day rule. But why 14 days specifically? Well, that’s roughly when the primitive streak first appears. To understand what the heck that means, we need a small embryology lesson. If you’re not interested in the science, feel free to skip to the next section!
We might skip over some details because they aren’t absolutely necessary to understand what I’ll be talking about later but I definitely recommend learning more through some videos I’ve linked below if you’re interested.
After fertilization, the fertilized oocyte becomes known as a zygote. This zygote then divides multiple times without growing in size because it’s bound by a membrane called the zona pellucida. Since the zona pellucida doesn’t change in size, the cells can’t stay within it forever.
When there are 16 cells (or 32 depending on what reference you’re looking at) within the membrane, there’s a name change and we begin calling this structure the morula, a Greek word meaning mulberry!
After this stage, things begin to look a bit different. The cells, which have been entirely uniform up to this point, begin to separate into two categories, the trophoblast and the inner cell mass (ICM). The trophoblast surrounds the ICM and the ICM “clumps” to one side creating a hollow sphere with some cells in it. This is now called the blastocyst (in humans).
It’s also around this time that the zona pellucida begins to disintegrate and allow for more growth in a process called zona hatching. The trophoblast continues to develop but we won’t focus on that; instead, we’ll narrow in on the ICM where our primitive streak will eventually be.
The ICM then further specializes into what’s called a bilaminar disc. As the name suggests, it is a two-layer disc with each layer containing one cell type. The top layer is called the epiblast and the bottom later is the hypoblast. This is where our primitive streak finally comes in!
As you may or may not know, there are actually three “layers” of cells that all of the cells of our body come from; so where’s the third one? They come from the primitive streak and primitive node, two areas on the epiblast where a thickening of the layer begins to occur. Then the cells in the middle of the streak and node begin to die off, creating the primitive groove and primitive pit.
The cells near the groove and pit begin to secrete certain chemicals and these chemicals trigger other cells to begin migrating down through the pit and epiblast and towards the hypoblast. That’s where they’ll replace the hypoblast which becomes known as the endoderm.
These cells don’t stop there. After that, the chemicals continue to be secreted and more cells are sent down the primitive groove and pit. But instead of joining the endoderm, they create a new layer in between called the mesoderm. As a final step, the remaining epiblast is changed into the final layer and renamed the ectoderm. We now have our trilaminar disc—a disc with three layers.
But we still don’t know—why is the primitive streak significant?
For one, after the primitive streak forms, it’s not possible for twinning to occur. As well, once the streak is present, it’s possible to distinguish between the two halves of the body for the first time.
And 14 days is before implantation occurs; for policy reasons, picking a time after implantation would be impractical and venture into other laws and guidelines involving post-implantation embryos and fetuses.
As an attendee at a panel in 2016 so eloquently put it:
The primitive streak acts as “a proxy for individuation.”
And here’s another quote from this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast to help you better understand this concept:
[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.
However, it’s important to note that this 14 days is not written in stone and should not be regarded as the point at which a switch is suddenly flipped, granting the embryo full moral status.
Rather, it was a policy choice grounded in science. Interestingly enough, this report itself did not concretely set 14 days as the limit and instead kept the discussion open for possibly longer amounts of time if the topic being researched was the primitive streak itself.
Now let’s hear what Mary Warnock—chair of the Warnock Committee, often regarded as the popularizers of the 14-day rule—had to say on the matter 33 years after the Warnock Committee’s report came out:
We picked on 14 days because we learned that at about that time the cells in the loose cluster that then existed began to differentiate into different types of cells and tissues, and that after this, the progress grew much faster, there could be no further division into twin embryos, and the primitive streak would appear, the first sign of what would be the spinal cord.
I chose 14, rather than 13 or 15, simply because everyone can count up to 14; a fortnight is a good, memorable number, and records can be kept week by week. We were criticized because it was an arbitrary figure, and in a way it was, it could have been other than 14.
Later in the article, we’ll take a look at current discussions and policies around the 14-day rule.
Let’s now move on to another topic of discussion for the panel: informed consent. As mentioned before, you’d expect to see consent as one of the important guidelines for preimplantation embryo research. However, the specifics are also good to mention because they’re often forgotten.
The report states that whenever possible, donors must be told exactly what research their donated gametes or embryo(s) will be used for, e.g., whether they will be transferred to a uterus or not. They also acknowledge that this won’t be possible with all currently frozen gametes because some come from anonymous donors.
Another special case the panel considered was IVF where a sperm donor may believe their gametes are solely being used for infertility purposes when in fact, they’re being used in research as well. Therefore, they recommend obtaining consent from both gamete and embryo donors.
Finally, it must be ensured that the physician conducting fertility treatment and dealing with the patients is not also the primary researcher as this could lead to coercion. The patients may feel that by not consenting to donate for research, they may not get the same quality of service. This should be avoided by bringing in a secondary person to help the patients rather than the researcher.
Oocyte Fertilization For Research
Another interesting topic discussed is whether oocytes (or egg cells) can be fertilized for the express purpose of research. This is referring to not only using embryos left over from IVF (with consent) but also creating embryos just to do research on them.
The panel ultimately decided that human health should be the primary factor considered in deciding whether this is okay. They didn’t say that this can’t be done but it needs to meet either one of these conditions…
- 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.
- 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.
Alongside this, there are three guidelines to ensure the safety of those involved in this research…
- 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
- Women must give informed consent explicitly for the purposes of fertilizing their oocytes for research
- No payments will be given to donors (discussed above)
This topic also begs the question: why would researchers want to fertilize oocytes for research? There are quite a few reasons that boil down to three main buckets and relate to the conditions describes above.
The first bucket is when the research requires fertilization such as wanting to study embryos with gametes from specific donors (possibly with certain diseases) or studying the effects of drugs on gametes and later their fertilization.
The second bucket is about the scarcity of IVF embryos. Should there be a lack of IVF embryos and a lack of ability to fertilize oocytes and create embryos, important research may need to stop until new IVF embryos are obtained.
The final bucket discusses how a ban on fertilizing oocytes for research could lead to more pressure on women undergoing infertility treatments. As the Canadian Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies put it in 1993:
Doing research on zygotes could put women enrolled in IVF programs under pressure to consent to donate unused eggs or zygotes. This pressure could be particularly acute if the creation of zygotes for research purposes were prohibited.
Women or couples could feel compelled to donate zygotes so as not to be seen as uncooperative or because they believe that to refuse could cost them their place in the IVF program.
With that being said, the NIH panel was steadfastly against the fertilization of oocytes simply because of a scarcity of “spare” IVF embryos.
Where Can the Embryos Come From?
Things get a bit complicated here so I’ll try my best to simplify without sparing crucial details. If you want to read this part yourself in full, click here.
With that being said, let’s get into it. Once all of the aforementioned guidelines are followed, “spare” embryos from IVF seem to be the ones that can most easily be used for research involving both transfer and research that doesn’t.
Here, transfer is referring to whether the embryo is later transferred into the uterus or not. The reason why the panel deemed this acceptable was that these women have something to gain directly from this research and they would be undergoing these risks regardless of this research.
When it comes to using embryonic stem cells derived from oocytes expressly fertilized for the purpose of research, the panel came to the conclusion that this research requires further review though their conclusion was not unanimous.
Finally, the panel decided that the use of gametes from deceased women is allowed if one of the two conditions are met
- 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
One of the panel members more disagreed with one of the conditions, however:
I concur with the Panel’s conclusion that women undergoing already scheduled surgery and women who agree to donate after death are permissible sources of oocytes. I would not permit, however, the use of oocytes from dead women where consent is obtained from next-of-kin or from women who are participants in infertility treatment.
The member goes on to explain the reasons behind her opinion include that the donation of gametes is unique compared to other organs as it can lead to reproduction with the individual’s genes and many don’t object because they do not appreciate that reproduction using these gametes is a possibility.
As well, the member states that women undergoing infertility treatments will not individually benefit from this research and they are in too vulnerable of a state during this treatment to make such decisions.
Lastly, the panel decided that embryos could come from parthenogenesis, where eggs are induced into creating an embryo without fertilization from sperm. They also imposed a limit on this by saying that the embryos could not be transferred to a uterus.
As for sources of oocytes for the purposes of parthenogenesis, the panel deemed fetal oocytes unfit unless there was a very compelling need for it, but that women undergoing IVF and deceased women are permissible sources if they provide consent.
When the Panel Said “No, Thank You”
There were a few other interesting areas of research that the panel agreed should be prohibited entirely or partially from receiving federal funding that I wanted to briefly summarize here.
One of these was cross-species fertilization where the oocyte and sperm each came from different species. This was banned for cross-fertilization of evolutionarily similar species like non-human primates and humans, but was allowed for hamster-human cross-fertilization as it’s used to test the viability of human sperm at infertility treatments and isn’t allowed to develop to an organism.
Another big no-no was creating human-human and human-non-human chimeras. Chimeras are organisms that have two different genotypes regardless of whether the organisms contributing to the chimera are of the same species or not.
Finally, interspecies uterine transfers where embryos from one species are transferred to the uterine of a different species were not allowed to receive federal funding per this report.
How Will These Regulations Be Enforced?
That’s a fantastic question and one that the panel had to address as well. They proposed that whenever a proposal for research involving preimplantation embryos is submitted to the NIH, an ad hoc national review board should be formed by the NIH Director to review the proposal.
This board would monitor the research for 3 years, after which the NIH Director would have the option to end this monitoring and replace it with “a more decentralized review.” This ad hoc board would review the proposal after it had already gone through the two regular steps of review: a local institutional review board (IRB) and the NIH study section. IRBs have the role of “review[ing] and monitor[ing] biomedical research involving human subjects” and study sections are groups of researchers who review grants in their respective fields.
They suggest that other methods that were already in place for reviewing such research simply involved people who weren’t as experienced in such sensitive and controversial matters. As well, they reviewed many other types of research meaning they could not gain too much experience in this specific field to apply later.
In addition, the panel mentions that this process may only be warranted for a short period of time and that another process may replace it. During this period, the board can gain experience and set precedents after which local review boards may come into effect again, now with some precedents to follow.
However, even after the dissolving of the panel, certain groups at NIH such as the Office for Protection against Research Risks should ensure that the local boards are being consistent and ethical in their reviews.
The 3 P’s Over Time: Policies, Politics, Public Opinion
As promised above, we’ll also take a look at how some of the topics analyzed by the 1994 panel have evolved over time. I’ve picked three topics to focus on: the 14-day rule, lack of compensation for oocyte donors’ time, and parthenogenesis. We’ll look at these through the lens of policy, politics, and public opinion.
The 14-Day Rule
Despite what the name might imply, the 14-day rule is not a law in several countries including the U.S. but is rather a guideline that most scientists follow. This has been the case for the past few decades but changed just a few months ago.
In May 2021, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the body most often looked to for guidance surrounding this topic, relaxed its guidelines regarding this two-week period of culturing of intact human embryos in vitro.
Normally, they categorize various research into 3 categories of permissibility and they are as follows.
- Includes research that does not require review from an ethics board but may require reporting
- Includes research that requires oversight and discussion
- Includes research that is unsafe at the moment or unjustifiable and should therefore not be practiced
Growing embryos past 14 days in vitro fell into the third category for a long time. But it was moved to the second one in May, making it permissible under certain circumstances.
To pursue this research, it must be ensured that there is wide public acceptance and that it is in line with local regulations. After this, a review committee should ensure that going beyond 14 days is necessary for this research and that the minimum number of embryos is used for the mimimum time possible.
Though the ISSCR does not hold any governing power, it is an organization that many governments and institutions look to for guidance and therefore has a large influence over the scientific community.
Public Opinion & Politics
When discussing the possible extension of the 14-day rule, some bioethicists bring up the point of public trust in science. If we begin to bend the 14-day rule in certain circumstances, as we have begun to do so with the new ISSCR guidelines, will the public still trust that scientists are using 14-day+ embryos in vitro only if expressly needed?
On top of that, bringing up the 14-day rule could result in heated political discussions which could possibly lead to a restriction of this rule rather than a relaxation.
And others, such as Henry Greely from the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, believe that a 14-day+ embryo grown in vitro could possibly not tell us the same things an embryo in vivo could and there is therefore not a strong argument for extending the limit.
But some experts have a different view. Many, if not most, people in the general public have no clue what the 14-day rule is. How could something they’re not aware of be comforting to them and instill trust in science?
An important thing to note is that most scientists agree there’s not a solid reason for pushing the limit beyond 28 days. By that point, embryonic tissue can be obtained from other sources and much more is known about development after the first month.
But the period between 14 and 28 days is considered a black box and the events occurring during this time could lead to miscarriages and abnormalities which could be studied with a relaxed limit. This is because this time period covers gastrulation, which occurs roughly from day 13 to day 20, where cells begin to specialize.
Another question that arises is why we can’t use alternative methods to study this black box such as animal models or models developed from pluripotent stem cells. While both offer interesting insights, it isn’t possible to definitively make conclusions about humans without comparing these models to human embryos. For instance, while monkey embryos have been grown past 14 days, their implantation is different from humans meaning diseases involving that stage, like intrauterine growth restriction, can’t effectively be studied.
This fantastic paper outlines the five main reasons that extending the limit makes sense and these reasons can be seen below in the below (very well-drawn) graphic.
This same paper also proposes taking an incremental approach (of 2–3 days) to extending research beyond 14 days. If it is agreed upon by the public, ethics boards, and local officials that a certain project may go beyond 14 days, the first objective should be to reach 16 to 17 days. If their initial research hypothesis holds at this point in time, they may continue. Otherwise, they must stop and revisit their work. In this way, our understanding of human embryology may continually increase.
Something else of note is that despite all experts agreeing on the importance of public discussion and input, few efforts have been taken to truly involve the public in this decision-making. The first step, in this case, would be to inform the public of all of the facts, free from bias. Then, a large-scale discussion should be launched, locally, nationally, and internationally among communities so that this can be a true societal decision.
No Compensation For Donors’ Time
We’ve already discussed what the panel’s thoughts were on this topic 30 years ago. But how have policies changed over time, if at all?
Before we can address that question, we need to talk a bit about the shifting environment within the field of oocyte donations. Back then, women undergoing IVF were common oocyte donors if they had extra oocytes they didn’t intend to use.
However, this has changed since then. Cryopreservation of both oocytes and embryos has improved significantly, leading many undergoing IVF to opt to cryopreserve their oocytes rather than donate them.
This means a large portion of donated oocytes are now coming from women who are donating their oocytes expressly for the purpose of research, making this discussion of compensation arguably even more important. The use of less invasive procedures for obtaining the oocytes has also made donating them easier and more comfortable.
Federally in the U.S., there’s no official law dictating compensation for oocyte donors. Guidance is provided by some agencies such as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). They released a report in 2021 about their stance on donor compensation, but no concrete numbers were discussed.
They decided that…
Financial compensation of women donating oocytes for reproductive or research purposes is justified on ethical grounds.
About a decade earlier in 2007, they came out with more concrete guidelines stating that
Total payments to donors in excess of $5,000 require justification and sums above $10,000 are not appropriate.
Though the ASRM does not address these number-based guidelines in their more recent report, a lawyer representing the society defended them once more in 2015.
Also worth mentioning is that while these are simply guidelines, clinics and physicians who choose to become members of the ASRM are required to follow these guidelines.
Despite the lack of federal control, a few states have taken action recently. For instance, the state of New York allowed for researchers to compensate oocyte donors donating for the express purpose of stem cell research for their time and effort in 2009.
Similarly, in California, a law that came into effect in 2019 requires oocyte donors donating for research purposes to be compensated for their time and inconvenience.
Public Opinion and Politics
There are a few different reasons people don’t believe oocyte donors should be compensated, one of which being undue inducement, which was discussed above.
Another is the commodification of oocytes. Some are worried that putting a price tag on cells used for the creation of life will devalue them. As one ethics committee opinion paper points out, however, this argument is rarely brought up with regards to sperm donors who are regularly compensated for their time.
As well, the distinction should be made that oocyte donors are being compensated for their time, effort, and undertaking of risk, just as anyone would be for working, versus being paid for the oocytes themselves. Another step that can be taken to prevent this commodification or the placing of value on human life is to ensure that donors are paid the same amount regardless of the quality of the oocytes donated.
Furthermore, some make the argument that compensation could lead to a society supportive of eugenics in the future where children’s worth is determined by the colour of their eyes rather than their true value.
Again others believe that compensation will remove an important part of the donation process: altruism, though this may not be grounded in logic. 88% of donors in one study who were paid up to $5000 reported that “being able to help someone” was their favourite thing about the process.
Despite all of these disagreements, one thing remains clear: oocyte donors must be informed of all of the risks they are consenting to when choosing to donate. Not only is informing donors important but providing someone with expertise in the field as well as mental health expertise is crucial in ensuring the physical and mental health of the donor is always put first.
Now we’ve come to our final topic of parthenogenesis. As mentioned above, parthenogenesis as a source for embryos was approved by the panel in 1994. But before we dive into more current policies around this technique, what exactly is parthenogenesis?
In simple terms, parthenogenesis is where oocytes are fertilized entirely on their own, without any sperm; in other words, the genetic material in the oocyte comes solely from that oocyte.
Parthenogenesis exists in both animals and humans, as seen in two types of growth in humans: dermoid cysts of the ovary and teratomas. In both of these growths, some differentiation of cells is seen, suggesting some possible therapeutic potential for the cells that undergo this, termed parthenotes.
These parthenotes can have several applications from preserving the fertility of women and girls undergoing certain cancer treatments to studying the aforementioned growths.
With that out of the way, let’s get into some ethics!
Policies & Politics
Though the panel deemed the use of parthenogenesis and the study of parthenotes acceptable, a ruling in 2010 in the U.S. said otherwise.
An executive order from former President Obama in 2009 allowing for federal funding of human embryonic stem cells was deemed to be in violation of a federal law, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (DWA), by a federal judge.
Going back to 1996, the DWA was created as the response of the Republican-controlled House and Senate at the time to the very report we’re unpacking right now. It restricts “the use of federal funds for creating, destroying, or knowingly injuring human embryos.” And any organism not protected under another law (which we won’t get into) derived through fertilization, parthenogenesis, or cloning fell under the term “embryo”.
This didn’t make research on embryos illegal but meant that federal funding could not be used for this purpose. As of 2020, the DWA is still in effect and restricts federal funding for such research including for parthenogenesis.
Other than the applications described above, parthenotes can be useful in circumventing some of the ethical issues that individuals have with embryos. For instance, since there is no fertilization or joining of two genetic materials, some may not view parthenotes as having the same moral value as oocytes fertilized by sperm.
As well, some believe it’s the fact that a new person with a unique genetic identity is formed that makes the embryo deserving of certain moral status. Parthenotes have a genome identical to that of the person from who the oocyte comes; it does not have a unique genetic identity.
There are still ethical concerns such as the fact that parthenotes may have the potential to become persons in the future, though for now, it appears that parthenotes will never develop to term. Nonetheless, they offer an interesting option from both an ethical and scientific standpoint.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it! It was amazing to learn about the ethics of embryo research as I’ve primarily focused on the scientific aspect until now.
Even though this report is quite long at roughly 100 pages, I recommend anyone who found this article interesting (which you hopefully did) to read it. It’s absolutely fascinating and combines both science and policy in a very nice way.
Finally, do keep in mind that I simply provided a summary of the report and some small details are intentionally missing for the purposes of brevity. All points expressed are based on references I referred a list of which you can find here. Thanks for reading!
Hey there, I’m Parmin, a 15 y/o student researcher studying stem cells 🧪 Everyday, I aspire to uncover the secrets of biology and learn something new! Make sure to follow me on Medium to hear about every new article I post, connect with me on LinkedIn, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org! Also subscribe to my monthly newsletter to learn about every cool, new thing I’m working on ✍️