It is often said that in scientific research, anything that can be done, will be done, regardless of its ethical connotations. This is what seems to have occurred in the light of an article published on 4th May this year in Nature (doi:10.1038/nature17948), entitled “Self-organisation of the in vitro attached human embryo“, authored by investigators at The Rockefeller University of New York and the University of Cambridge.

The article shows for the first time the cellular and molecular process of human embryonic development up to Day 14 of life of the embryo following fertilisation. It is also the first time that the process of implantation of the human embryo in the placenta has been successfully replicated in an experimental medium, i.e. outside the womb.

According to Science News of 4th May 2016, “this novel technique vastly expands the ability to answer basic questions about our own development, as well as to understand early pregnancy loss”.

Nevertheless, provides better understand of implantation of embryo

As various embryology experts state in the same article, implantation of the embryo was a complete “black box”, which when opened, provides objective possibilities to better understand the blastocyst (the 60-200 cell embryo that implants in the placenta) and its biochemical environment.

Previous studies by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and co-workers at the University of Cambridge had conducted similar experiments in mice. Now they are being carried out in humans.

As we have already mentioned, in this study it is particularly noted that the scientists have been able to develop an extrauterine system that mimics the human uterus, and which consequently allows us to better understand what happens during the implantation of human embryos.

A technical aspect of great scientific interest that the study clarifies is that it enables us to improve our understanding of the self-organisation of the embryo in its early stages of development, i.e. the organisation of the embryo directed by itself without any outside influence.

The study in question has undeniable biomedical importance, but nevertheless it presents ethical difficulties that cannot be ignored

There is no doubt that this study opens possibilities for improving our knowledge of some clinical problems, especially those related with early miscarriage, and to try to understand the high number of failed attempts to achieve pregnancy when in-vitro fertilisation is used. It is surprising that this high failure rate is considered here, something that is not often highlighted in the information provided by many assisted reproduction clinics.

Our ethical assessment

There is no doubt that the study in question has undeniable biomedical importance, but nevertheless it presents ethical difficulties that cannot be ignored.

The first thing that strikes us is the little attention paid to human embryo manipulation, since it cannot be overemphasised that all the experiments were carried out with human embryos less than 14 days old; the manipulation in itself merits a very negative ethical assessment, because embryos are manipulated and destroyed as if they were things, not living human beings, i.e. the embryo is treated as an object.

Some authors try to play down this ethical difficulty by stating that the embryos are destroyed before they reach Day 14 of embryo life, i.e. before the nervous system starts to develop, which reduces the rights of that embryo to live. However, it must be stated that the appearance of the nervous system is but one further step in the development of human embryos, which does not qualify them as human beings, since they humans from the moment of fertilisation.

However, that apart, voices are already being heard advocating that the laws that exist in 12 countries in the developed world (United Kingdom [the first where this technique was approved], Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Spain, Slovenia, Holland, Denmark, South Korea, New Zealand and Austria; in Switzerland, it is legalised but only up to day 7 of embryonic life) — which require the embryos to be destroyed before Day 14 of life when used in experiments — be amended to allow them to live for longer, thus expanding the possibilities of experimentation.

I think there is no need to place special emphasis to denounce what this clear utilitarian ethical position means, since it justifies manipulating and destroying human embryos — human beings — based on the possible experimental benefits that might be achieved.

These experiments, which use human beings for biomedical purposes, have repeatedly been compared with others conducted in the mid-twentieth century, which used prisoners of war subjected to very harsh external conditions, to thus assess their resilience and be able to draw conclusions that would later be of use for the army of the experimenters. This is something ethically reprehensible from any point of view.

It is certain that many will opt for the importance that the experiments described in the article discussed might have for biomedicine, and even for their clinical application; on the other hand, there is no doubt either that experiments that involve the destruction of human embryos can not be ethically justified in any way, however positive the results.

Finally, we ask: could similar experiments not be conducted using non-human primates, especially baboons? This, however, is surely economically more expensive than going to human embryo “farms”, which are those stored in assisted reproduction clinics, left over from in-vitro fertilisation, whose use has no economic cost whatsoever.

justo aznar Definitiva

Justo Aznar

Bioethics Observatory

Catholic University of Valencia

See what happen in other countries HERE