A 14-day limit for bioethics: the debate over human embryo research

BMC Medical Ethics 18 (1):38 (2017)

Giulia Cavaliere
Lancaster University
BackgroundThis article explores the reasons in favour of revising and extending the current 14-day statutory limit to maintaining human embryos in culture. This limit is enshrined in law in over a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom. In two recently published studies, scientists have shown that embryos can be sustained in vitro for about 13 days after fertilisation. Positive reactions to these results have gone hand in hand with calls for revising the 14-day rule, which only allows embryo research until the 14th day after fertilisation.Main textThe article explores the most prominent arguments in favour of and against the extension of the 14-day limit for conducting research on human embryos. It situates these arguments within the history of the 14-day limit. I start by discussing the history of the 14-day limit in the United Kingdom and the reasons behind the decision to opt for a compromise between competing moral views. I then analyse the arguments that those who are generally in favour of embryo research put forward in support of extending the 14-day rule, namely the argument of the beneficence of research and the argument of technical feasibility. I then show how these two arguments played a role in the recent approval of two novel techniques for the replacement of faulty mitochondrial DNA in the United Kingdom. Despite the popularity and widespread use of these arguments, I argue that they are ultimately problematic and should not be straightforwardly accepted. I end by making a case for respecting value pluralism in the context of embryo research, and I present two reasons in favour of respecting value pluralism: the argument of public trust and the argument of democracy.ConclusionI argue that 14-day limit for embryo research is not a valuable tool despite being a solution of compromise, but rather because of it. The importance of respecting value pluralism needs to be considered in any evaluation concerning a potential change to the 14-day rule.
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DOI 10.1186/s12910-017-0198-5
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