In the field of reproductive research there has been an international guideline prohibiting scientists from growing an embryo outside of a womb beyond a period of 14 days. Two recent breakthroughs in two independent laboratories have demonstrated the need for a comprehensive and urgent re-examining and reform of this practice known as “the 14 day rule.”
When examining the short history of reproductive science we see that the origin of the rule came from the politics of 1970’s America. After the country wide legalization of abortion in Row vs. Wade by the Supreme Court, the public was becoming increasingly concerned with the treatment of fetuses by researchers. Only six months after the court’s decision, media reports were coming out of what many felt were the desecration of fetuses by sciences.
Despite these concerns, reproductive research steamed ahead and in 1978 the first successful In Vitro Fertilization was performed. This is a multistage process and one of the most important aspects of which involves keeping the embryo alive outside of a uterus for up to six days. With this breakthrough the question became how long can we as a society allow, morally, the development of human fetuses outside of the uterus?
The Carter Administration gathered together medical professionals, researchers, a variety of social scientist and even religious scholars. This and other issues that walked a line between ethics and the quest for new scientific knowledge, led to the formation of the Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) under the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Their job was to find a compromise.
The EAB looked at a variety of factors facing included in the issue. The consensus beforehand had been eight weeks, the time that the fetus can receive sensory input from outside its life.
One member, Leroy Walters, a bioethicist, now a professor at George Town University, is credited with proposing the concept of the 14 day marker.
After examining the research Walters says that up until the 14 day point 50 percent of embryos are reabsorbed or shed by the mother. Embryos can also split and recombine during this time and have not “decided” to become a single individual or multiple fetuses thus do not possess what Walters calls a “biological identity.” These factors demonstrated to the Walters that society did not have a strong moral responsibility to humans at this stage of development.
The EAB agreed and though the 14-day rule was never passed into law it would become an international guideline that is followed in most Western nations.
At the time and decades after these points were mostly conjectural since researchers had only been able to keep embryos developing for nine days. With the recent breakthroughs at both the University of Cambridge – which grew an embryo for 13 days – and Rockefeller University – which grew a fetus for 13 days but then froze development – a new age of information and insight into what goes on during the early stages of pregnancy can begin.
Furth study of further human development could lead to new more effective methods for In Vitro fertilization, a procedure that is extremely expensive and only produces a successful pregnancy in around 50 percent of cases.
More so, the knowledge we as a species can gain creates a greater understanding of ourselves, our origins, while also allowing us to better protect both mothers and their children by aiding them to give birth as safely as possible.
What actually goes on during the earliest days of pregnancy are largely a mystery to reproductive science. As the head of the Rockefeller University team put it, “We know more about fish and mice and frogs than we know about ourselves.”
There are serious moral dilemmas to be faced but the conversation needs to be reopened.