IVF Has Lead To A Deeper Understanding Of Human Reproduction
By creating more fertilised eggs than are generally reimplanted in the uterus, IVF produces “spare embryos” that may be used, with consent, for scientific research. This notion of “spares” that might have the potential to become a human being (though many do not) still seems morally repugnant to some people. Others accept that “excess” embryos are inevitable if IVF is to achieve good success rates, and feel there is justification for using them to advance scientific understanding and bring medical benefits, rather than discarding them. In any event, IVF has made possible an entire field of human embryo research.
Such studies not only might help to improve IVF itself but may lead to insights into, for example, the causes of early miscarriage or growth defects. “Research on human embryos has changed our fundamental understanding of the genetics of cell biology,” says Alison Murdoch, professor of reproductive medicineat Newcastle University. “As well as helping us understand why fertility of the human species is so uniquely bad, the research has extended applications of human embryology beyond the clinical treatment of infertility into prevention of other medical problems.”
The HFEA places strict limits on what can be done with human embryos. The Warnock report advised that they should not be used in research beyond 14 days from fertilisation – a cutoff that was always acknowledged as somewhat arbitrary, although it was chosen partly because there is a clear biological marker. At this stage, embryos develop the “primitive streak”, the first sign of what will become the spinal column, after which they can no longer potentially become twins. So in a crude sense, after 14 days the “personhood” of the embryo becomes determined. But recent advances have made it possible in principle to keep embryos viable in vitro for longer than 14 days, reopening discussion about whether the 14-day rule should be extended. Currently there are no plans to do so.
By Phillip Ball Guardian
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