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Human embryo research

All sides to the disputes.

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What is a human embryo?

This is a microphotograph of a just-fertilized ovum; it is called a zygote. It will divide and re-divide repeatedly, at about 20 hour intervals. It develops into a solid, shapeless mass of cells called a morula. Later it becomes a blastocyst. Some 2 weeks after fertilization, when it becomes implanted into the wall of the womb, it is called an embryo. Later, from 9 weeks after fertilization until birth, it is called a fetus. 1

But this series of terms is mainly used by medical sources. In popular usage, the term embryo is often used to refer to any stage of pre-natal mammalian development from 0 to 8 weeks after fertilization. We will use this definition here.

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Definitions of terms:

Much confusion is created when various groups assign different definitions to the same terms. For example:

Item Pro-life definition Pro-choice, and medical definitions
Start of pregnancy At conception When the embryo imbeds itself in the womb lining; about 12 days after conception.
Start of human life At conception Various definitions: e.g. at viability, or at birth.
Abortion The artificial termination of human life at any time from conception to birth Any termination of life between implantation and the start of the 3rd trimester
Term used to refer to the "products of conception" Baby, "the unborn", "the pre-born" Zygote, morula, blastocyst, embryo, fetus

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History of embryo research funding in the U.S.:

Human embryo research in the U.S. has been controlled by restricting the flow of federal government funds to research projects. 2 Some limited research has been performed in private research projects without government funding.

bullet 1975-1993: No federal funding was available. Research continued in other countries, notably Australia, England, France and Italy.
bullet 1994-SEP: A Human Embryo Research Panel, formed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recommended that embryo research be funded by the federal government. They found that the: "promise of human benefit from research is significant, carrying great potential benefit to infertile couples, families with genetic conditions, and individuals and families in need of effective therapies for a variety of diseases." 3 Researchers who applied for grants would still have to subject their request to peer-review and to a study by a standing committee of experts. Research would normally be done only on what are often called "spare embryos" -- embryos left-over after a couple's in-vitro fertilization procedure is completed. These embryos would otherwise be either frozen, donated to another couple, or discarded. Scientists would be allowed to create embryos directly for research purposes, but only under special circumstances. No work would be permitted on embryos older than 15 days. 6 This limit was selected as being less than the 18 days when the neural tube closes, and division of the embryo into identical twins is normally no longer possible.  There were "over 53,000 letters of protest against the NIH Recommendations (including many from other countries), compared with only 1,300 letters of support." 11It is not clear whether these numbers represent real differences in levels of support, or whether they reflect the relative organizing ability of various pro-life and pro-choice groups.
bullet 1994-DEC: President Clinton announced that no federal funds would be made for studies which involved the creation of embryos for research purposes. However, this prohibition did not apply to experimentation on  left-over embryos that had already been created for in vitro fertilization procedures, and were no longer needed to help a couple conceive.
bullet 1995 to 1999: During each fiscal year, Congress has passed appropriation bills which totally banned all federal government funding of human embryo research. The ban continues as of mid-1999. For example, the 1996/7 appropriation act which funds the NIH included the amendment:

"No federal research funds may be used for the creation of a human embryo for research purposes or for research in which a human embryo is destroyed, discarded or subjected to more than minimal risk." 4

The National Institutes of Health interpreted the 1998/9 appropriation act as follows:

"Section 513 reinstates the current ban that prohibits NIH from using appropriated funds to support human embryo research. Grant, cooperative agreement and contract funds may not be used for:

  1. the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
  2. research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under...the Public Health Service Act." 5
Research continues in other countries and in private U.S. laboratories.

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Ethics of embryo research -- two views:

Embryo research centers around the numerous frozen embryos which are left over at fertility clinics as a result of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. Typically, during IVF, a woman's ovaries are stimulated to produce multiple ova. These are fertilized by the husband's sperm. Some of the healthy embryos produced by this process are implanted in the woman's womb. Hopefully, one will develop normally into a fetus and be born nine months later. Excess embryos are generally frozen so that they can be used in the future in the event that pregnancy did not develop, or that the couple wants another baby. Some of these frozen embryos are used by scientists to do research.

Embryo research will likely develop new techniques for contraception, as well as methods to detect and treat many diseases and disorders. 

There is strong opposition to this research from pro-life groups and strong support from pro-choice organizations. No common ground, no compromise appears possible:

bullet Pro-life position: All pro-life conclusions are based on the foundational belief that a human life begins at the time of fertilization of the ovum. Thus, an embryo is viewed as a human being with all of the rights of an adult. Experiments which subject an ovum to any significant risk are the ethical equivalent of the infamous medical experiments that were inflicted on unwilling and uninformed victims in Nazi death camps. Ends do not justify the means. Thus, no matter how helpful to mankind embryo research might potentially be, it cannot be done if the embryo is eventually killed or subjected to a significant risk. "That way lies the moral approach of a totalitarian society, that thinks it can use and abuse individual human beings in accordance with some grand scheme promising 'the greatest good for the greatest number.'...If, as modern embryology tells us, ...[genetically defective embryos]...are indeed part of the continuum of human life, then the notion that genetic flaws enable us to destroy the 'imperfect' embryos has implications for the equal dignity of human beings after birth as well. " 8

C. Ben Mitchell is a biomedical consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He said: "It is unconscionable to create human embryos for the purpose of experimentation and destruction This is biotech cannibalism, consuming our young for the sake of our own potential prosperity." 13

They are concerned that if scientists can perform embryo experiments on human persons who are a few weeks old, there may be no stopping scientists who want to experiment on older humans -- even newborns, infants, humans and adults. 

They feel that leftover embryos should be retained indefinitely -- alive but frozen -- at fertility clinics. They might perhaps be offered to other infertile couples who wish to have a child. There are a very small percentage if infertile couples in which the woman is unable to produce ova and the husband does not produce sperm. Those couples could use a few of the frozen sperm.

bullet Pro-choice position: Pro-choice beliefs are based on the assumption that a fertilized ovum is not a human being; it is rather potential human life. Pro-choice advocates differ in belief concerning when life becomes human life: Some argue that this happens:
bullet when the fetus resembles a human
bullet the point of viability when the fetus can live independently, or
bullet when the fetal brain develops to the point where it experiences self-awareness,  or
bullet at birth, or
bullet at some other stage of pregnancy.

Creating embryos and/or performing experiments on existing embryos is justifiable if:

bullet the research has a reasonable potential of advancing medical knowledge and enhancing human life, and
bullet if the embryos are killed well before they make the transition to a human person.

For example, if done during the first three weeks following conception, the embryo is perhaps 2 mm (less than 0.1") long 7 "At this early stage of development (before 14 days) the embryo does not have human form or genetic uniqueness. It is a growing collection of cells which can divide into two and naturally produce identical twins. It is unable to survive outside of the womb, does not have any organ structures including even a primitive brain and it has no degree cognitive development." 9

Some pro-choice groups advocate embryo research as a pro-active measure. They fear that the public might accept the pro-life concept that human personhood begins at conception. If that happens, then women's access to abortion and contraceptives will be threatened. 

Pro-lifers are faced with what appears to be an insurmountable problem. They can perhaps terminate embryo research in the U.S. But for their program to be completely successful, they would have to criminalize embryo research in every country of the world. Otherwise, American researchers will simply move their equipment to a country without a ban on their work and continue their research without significant interruption.

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An example of embryo research:

Dr. Mark Hughes was director of the Institute for Molecular and Human Genetics at Georgetown University. He was performing research into Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). 6 This would lead to a pre-natal test that would detect genetically caused, devastating  diseases, such as Tay Sachs. Pregnant women who are at risk of producing a baby with one of these diseases must currently wait until the 15th week of pregnancy, and then undergo amniocentesis. If the fetus is found to have the disease, the women must then decide whether to have a late term abortion. In a small percentage of cases, the test itself can cause the fetus to abort.

If Dr. Hughes' study was successful, an embryo could be checked for one or more genetically caused diseases. One cell would be removed from the morulla when it is an undifferentiated mass of 8 cells. If the embryo was found to be normal, the morulla would be implanted into the woman's womb. If it was defective, it would have been destroyed and the woman would start over from the beginning.

bullet To a pro-life supporter:
bullet killing a diseased embryo, a few days from conception, or
bullet performing an abortion on a 15th week fetus, or
bullet strangling a newborn

are ethically equivalent actions, since a human person is being murdered in each case. Dr. Hughes study would involve destroying some human embryos - an act of murder. The fact that they were genetically defective, and less than 2 weeks old is immaterial.

bullet To a pro-choice supporter, the woman should be allowed to choose between all possible courses of action:
bullet They could decide to not get pregnant, and:
bullet try to adopt a baby, or
bullet remain childless.
bullet They could decide to start a pregnancy using donated of sperm or ovum by another person who is not carrying the gene mutation.
bullet They could start a pregnancy on their own and:
bullet have a PGD test performed on the embryo, and have it killed if it is found to be defective, or
bullet submit to an amniocentesis procedure and then decide whether to have a late term abortion.
bullet take the pregnancy to term, give birth, and live with the consequences.
Different women would see certain of these options as moral and certain as immoral. Since there is no societal consensus on which is moral and which is the best choice for the couple involved, most pro-choicers would prefer to let the couple make an informed choice on their future. 

Dr. Hughes' studies would probably have met all of the requirements of the Human Embryo Research Panel's 1994-SEP recommendations. They probably would have met President Clinton's 1994-DEC criteria. But the NIH and Georgetown University said that he had violated regulations of both the Federal government and Roman Catholic church. He resigned his post in 1997-JAN. Women still must wait until their 15th week to have their amniocentesis procedures, unless they are are lucky enough to arrange a PGD test.

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Recent developments:

bullet 1999-JUN-16: Southern Baptist Convention Resolution: The messengers (delegates) to the SBC annual meeting approved a resolution which reaffirmed "its call for Congress to maintain the ban on federal funding of human embryo research and asking private researchers to halt such experimentation." C. Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, said embryo research "must be stopped...It doesn't matter whether she is five days old or 15 days old, a human embryo is a human being...That's just what human beings look like at that age. That's what all of us looked like at that age." 13
bullet 2001-MAR-14: Debate over continuing embryo research: The George W. Bush administration, the Republican-controlled Congresses and conservative Christian pro-life groups are all actively promoting an end to embryo research. They are opposed by numerous agencies which promote research into various debilitating and fatal diseases, and by pro-choice groups. 
bullet Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice: The Coalition includes groups affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church and other moderate and liberal Christian and Jewish institutions. They campaign in favor of access to abortion and birth control. Their board recently issued a statement supporting embryo research. They "affirmed the morality of using embryonic and fetal tissue, with careful regulation, for vital research that may result in restoring health to those suffering serious illnesses for which there is no cure." Spokesperson Marjorie Signer explained that those opposed to embryo research maintain that the embryo is a human person. "If they can make that point and get that point accepted, then it makes it that much easier for them to mobilize public opinion not only against abortion but also against family planning." She continued: "People who are staunchly pro-life have been won over to stem cell research because stems cells come from embryos that are going to be thrown out because they're not needed for in vitro fertilization. When you do in vitro fertilization (IVF), you create more embryos than you need. Some of them are left over, and they're just not going to be given to somebody else. Nobody is going to do that. That would really be bizarre."
bullet Two agencies: Christian Medical Association, Nightlife Christian Adoption, and other groups are reportedly suing the federal government to shut down all embryo research. 
bullet A spokesperson for the Family Research Council, William Saunders, reportedly suggested that pro-choice abortion rights groups should not defend human stem cell/embryo research because it has not directly linked to reproductive choice. He said: "It's incredible that they're so ideological that they can't separate this. He continued: "You can have the argument that abortion is a conflict of rights between the unborn child ... versus the woman's right ... to control her own body. [However] this is a different issue. This is where a human being, without their consent, can be used for research to benefit someone else. It's a living human being. It's not a situation where you have even the question of the remains of an aborted human being. This is a live human being that has to be killed."
bullet 2001-APR-27: Embryo research funding cancelled: The National Institutes of Health had planned a meeting to review researchers' requests for funding. The Bush administration cancelled the meeting, even as scientists reported new advances in embryo research. Presumably, when existing grants run out, researchers will only be able to obtain funding from non-governmental sources. The administration has ordered a review of the entire funding program; it is scheduled to be completed during 2001-Summer.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Visible Embryo is a remarkable web site. It shows the various stages of development from a fertilized egg to fully-formed fetus. See:
  2. "Human Embryo Research,"  a NARAL fact sheet at:
  3. NIH, Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel, Vol. I (1994), Page x. (Cited in #2 above).
  4. J.J. Callahan, letter to potential grant recipients, 1997-FEB, at:
  5. "Notice of legislative mandates contained in the Omnibus Consolidated Fiscal Year 1998 Appropriations Act, P.L. 105-78," dated 1997-NOV-13. See:
  6. Anon, "Forbidden Knowledge: A discussion of the federal ban on human embryo research," PBS Newshour Forum on 1997-MAR-14 at:
  7. Appearance of a Stage 9 embryo at:
  8. Richard Doerflinger, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Response at a PBS Newshour forum (Ref. 6) at:
  9. Mark Hughes' response at PBS Newshour forum (Ref. 6) at:
  10. John Morgan, "NIH and human embryo research," at: (This essay is no longer online)
  11. Quotation taken from a report by the American Bioethics Advisory Commission. The author disagrees with some material in this essay and has asked that a full citation not be given.
  12. "Comment: Stem Cell Research," Mary Woodard Lasker Charitable Trust, at:
  13. "Baptists call for ban on human cloning," Maranatha Christian Journal, 1999-JUN-18. See:
  14. Anon, "Human Embryo research/fetal experimentation," Focus on the Family, Policy statement dated 1997-DEC-15. See:
  15. "Religious group endorses human embryo research," CNSNews, posted 2001-MAR-15 on Maranatha Christian Journal at: 

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Copyright 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-SEP-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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