Human embryo research
All sides to the disputes.
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
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.
9 weeks after fertilization until birth, it is called a fetus.
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
Definitions of terms:
Much confusion is created when various groups assign different definitions to the
same terms. For example:
||Pro-choice, and medical
|Start of pregnancy
||When the embryo imbeds itself in the womb lining; about 12 days after
|Start of human life
||Various definitions: e.g. at viability, or at birth.
||The artificial termination of human life at any time from conception to
||Any termination of life between implantation and the start of the 3rd
|Term used to refer to the "products of conception"
||Baby, "the unborn", "the pre-born"
||Zygote, morula, blastocyst, embryo, fetus
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
Research continues in other countries and in private U.S. laboratories.
||1975-1993: No federal funding was available. Research continued in
other countries, notably Australia, England, France and Italy.|
||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
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
||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.|
||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
"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:
- the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
- 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
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:
||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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
||To a pro-life supporter:
||killing a diseased embryo, a few days from conception, or
||performing an abortion on a 15th week fetus, or
||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.
||To a pro-choice supporter, the woman should be allowed to choose between all possible
courses of action:
||They could decide to not get pregnant, and:
||try to adopt a baby, or
||They could decide to start a pregnancy using donated of sperm or ovum by another person
who is not carrying the gene mutation.|
||They could start a pregnancy on their own and:
||have a PGD test performed on the embryo, and have it killed if it is found to be
||submit to an amniocentesis procedure and then decide whether to have a late term
||take the pregnancy to term, give birth, and live with the consequences.
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.
||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|
||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.
||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."
||Two agencies: Christian Medical Association, Nightlife
Christian Adoption, and other groups are reportedly suing the
federal government to shut down all embryo research.
||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
||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.|
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- The Visible Embryo is a remarkable web site. It shows the
various stages of development from a fertilized egg to fully-formed fetus. See: http://www.visembryo.com/baby/index.html
- "Human Embryo Research," a NARAL fact sheet at: http://www.naral.org/publications/facts/humanemb.html
- NIH, Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel, Vol. I (1994), Page x. (Cited
in #2 above).
- J.J. Callahan, letter to potential grant recipients, 1997-FEB, at: http://www.nih.gov/grants/policy/humanembryoletter.htm
- "Notice of legislative mandates contained in the Omnibus Consolidated Fiscal
Year 1998 Appropriations Act, P.L. 105-78," dated 1997-NOV-13. See: http://www.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not98-013.html
- Anon, "Forbidden Knowledge: A discussion of the federal ban on human embryo
research," PBS Newshour Forum on 1997-MAR-14 at: http://www1.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march97/embryo_3-14.html
- Appearance of a Stage 9 embryo at: http://www.visembryo.com/baby/stage9.html
- Richard Doerflinger, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Response at a PBS Newshour
forum (Ref. 6) at: http://www1.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march97/embryo2.html
- Mark Hughes' response at PBS Newshour forum (Ref. 6) at: http://www1.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march97/embryo2.html
John Morgan, "NIH and human embryo research," at: http://www.comicscommando.com/corrupt/morgan2.htm
(This essay is no longer online)
- 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.
- "Comment: Stem Cell Research," Mary Woodard Lasker Charitable
Trust, at: http://www.fundingfirst.org/comment/16/comm2.html
- "Baptists call for ban on human cloning," Maranatha Christian
Journal, 1999-JUN-18. See: http://www.mcjonline.com
- Anon, "Human Embryo research/fetal experimentation," Focus on
the Family, Policy statement dated 1997-DEC-15. See: http://www.family.org/cforum/research/papers/a0001013.html
- "Religious group endorses human embryo research,"
CNSNews, posted 2001-MAR-15 on Maranatha Christian Journal at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/01a/20010314e.shtml
Copyright © 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2005-SEP-18
Author: B.A. Robinson