Genetic engineering has often been thought of with Hitler’s “perfect race,” designer babies, and, now, synthetic embryos. Leading up to this was in vitro fertilization and a discovery by physiologist Robert G. Edwards.
Dr. Edwards and his colleagues in 1970 announced that they were able to fertilize a human egg cell with a sperm cell, creating an artificially inseminated human embryo. They were able to keep it alive in a petri dish until day two, when it was 16 cells. In 2010, Edwards won a Nobel prize for his research as it opened the door into both in vitro fertilization and study of early human development.
After Edwards’ discovery, many began to question how long these embryos should be allowed to grow; in 1979, it was decided that they should only be allowed to grow for 14 days. This 14-day-rule was embraced world-wide as it was easy to follow and the growth at this stage is easy to see: at 14 days, human embryos develop a primitive streak, or ridge of cells, that later develops into the spine and serves as the body’s central axis.
Up until now, much research has been conducted without exceeding this 14-day rule. Stem cells from embryos have been isolated so that their development into specialized cells could be studied; adult cells were reprogrammed into embryolike stem cells. All of this was done without allowing the cells to grow near 14 days, primarily because human embryos are difficult to keep alive for over a week without freezing them. However, a team of scientists recently grew a human embryo for 13 days, bringing some to question if the 14-day time limit should be elongated.
This brings about many ethical concerns; some say that keeping embryos alive is ethical as long as if it does not feel pain. However, how can we measure when something begins to feel pain? How easy will it be for scientists to determine when to stop sustaining the life they have been using for research, and to determine when they have crossed the line from ethical to unethical?
1: Zimmer, Carl. “A New Form of Stem-Cell Engineering Raises Ethical Questions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/science/embryonic-stem-cells-synthetic-embryos-sheefs.html?_r=0>.