Stacy A. Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She teaches chemistry and physics for Kolbe Academy online homeschool program. She teaches “Reading Science in the Light of Faith” at Holy Apostles College & Seminary and “Catholic Theology of Science” at Seton Hall University. She is author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Her new book is Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press). Her website can be found here.
In May of this year, Insoo Hyun, Amy Wilkerson, and Josephine Johnston published a commentary in Nature, an international weekly journal of science, calling for a reconsideration of the “14-day rule” for human embryo research. Hyun is a world renown bioethicist and associate professor of bioethics and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Wilkerson is an associate vice-president for research support at the Rockefeller University in New York. Johnston is the director of research and a research scholar at the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York.
These scholars say that human development research is on a “collision course” with global policy and call for a recalibration of the 14-day rule. Let me explain the details first, and then respond.
Currently research using human embryos grown in vitro (in the lab) is limited to two weeks of age, before the primitive streak (the head to tail axis) appears—that is, before the embryo is considered an individual beyond the window when it could split into twins. This rule dates back to 1979 from the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Ethics Advisory Board and was adopted thereafter by other countries including Canada, the UK, Sweden, Australia, India, and China.
Until recently, the 14-day rule posed no threat to research since it has not been possible to grow embryos in the lab for more than 9 days. However, two research groups have now reported the ability to keep human embryos alive for 12—13 days.
One group, Ali Brivanlou and colleagues at The Rockefeller University in New York, Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology, describes the “self-organization of the in vitro attached human embryo” (Nature, 533: 251-254, May 12, 2016). Using a technique developed with mice embryos, they found that human embryos attach to an artificial platform (microscopy plate in solution) so that the differentiation of the cells can be studied. This research is deemed significant because it allows researchers to study early human development in detail for the first time. The hope is that studies will provide a way to prevent miscarriage and to grow human embryonic stem cells for cell replacement therapy.
The other paper, from Simon Fishel and Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the University of Cambridge, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, likewise describes a “self-organization of the human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues” (Nature Cell Biology, 18: 700-708, May 4, 2016). The researchers use the phrase “self-organization” in reference to the embryo’s autonomy to attach itself to a platform. In other words, the developing embryo drives its own implantation; the medium does not cause the embryo to implant. This self-action indicates the potential for growing embryos beyond the 14-day limitation.
So those are the basics of the scientific reports. The question now being posed is an ethical one, or so they say. The researchers are going to decide whether to extend the 14-day rule to some point beyond implantation. It is a foregone conclusion that they will.
And it is an offense to every one of us who accepts the tautology that human life begins at conception. For one, this is nothing new. The 14-day rule was nothing new in the 70s. This call for recalibration is more of the same. We have long grown accustomed to the equivocation among those who try to justify killing embryonic and fetal humans by redefining words for human life in ways no scientist or ethicist would do for any other species. “But it is to learn about human development and find cures!” they say without understanding that we reject embryo research for the same reason they reject killing two-year old girls for research. Sure, they could develop methods to learn more about how girls develop or to prevent girls from dying by killing girls to study them, but no amount of scientific knowledge or medical cure justifies killing the innocent for that purpose. The ethical question trumps the research opportunity. Period.
The other reason to be offended is subtler. Hyun, Wilkerson, and Johnston argue that this public-policy tool has been “tremendously successful” because the line has been clear. The primitive streak is visible and the age of the embryo grown in a dish is known, therefore they say, the policy has carved out a space for research that everyone understands. However, this claim of success is meaningless since, as they also note, embryos could not be grown past that point anyway. The rule has not reigned in any research.
Notice this statement in the Nature commentary:
“Some might conclude from such developments that policymakers redefine boundaries expediently when the limits become inconvenient for science. If restrictions such as the 14-day rule are viewed as moral truths, such cynicism would be warranted. But when they are understood to be tools designed to strike a balance between enabling research and maintaining public trust, it becomes clear that, as circumstances and attitudes evolve, limits can be legitimately recalibrated.”
The 14-day rule never was about morality. It was a pat on the head to appease us and to prevent a public backlash against them and their research. The 14-day rule is and always was an empty gesture, as if we are too gullible to get it.
What do we do? I honestly do not know. To tolerate the equivocation seems cowardly, but neither do any of us go to the extremes of taking up arms against embryonic research. We are not going to start any wars over it because, although our logic is tight and consistent, we also know that not everyone accepts that a 14-day old human is still a human. Let me reinforce that: as advocates of life, we must admit there is a difference in an embryo and a newborn. Reason and biology tell us both are human but at different stages of development. However, it takes some faith to believe the youngest humans are still our children. After all, we cannot see them. We cannot hold them. Without faith, we could too easily disregard them as organisms unworthy of moral status, which is really the core of the problem. People reject faith, and they can make up all kinds of reasons to do what they want.
Those of us who have the fortitude to defend the dignity of human life from its beginning to its natural end are not going to have (much of) a seat (if any) at the table to make these decisions. The people making the decisions are the ones funding or doing the research, and they will give themselves whatever berth they need to sail forward, until one day they perhaps grow a baby completely outside a mother, or die trying. That is the nature of pride and research. Even in spite of protests, the ones who do it anyway, the rebels, will go down in history as scientists to be remembered. In my opinion, we delude ourselves to think that public outrage will stop this kind of research from continuing.
We all know that faith demands we face hard realities in a fallen world. It may be a simple matter of logic and science to accept that human life begins when it begins, but it can be a difficult truth to live by, not just amid research like this but in very personal ways. For now, let me reaffirm that those who are “open” to human life, as it is—with all its mystery, suffering, and joy—have more courage than researchers will ever put in a petri dish.
For all the women who reject birth control in a culture that shoves it in our face;
For all the mothers who welcome baby after baby, and who lose themselves in the blurs of fear and exhaustion, every single moment of every single day, working to keep their children safe;
For all the couples who forge—yes forge—their relationships and find their way through the strange landscape of ovulation peaks and hormone cycles, holding hands, gritting teeth, and trying not to snap at each other;
For all the fathers who sit with their heads in their hands wondering how they will provide for the families that depends on them (in ways no one ever appreciates);
For all the parents who grieve an early miscarriage, those who refuse to shrug off the loss as a “chemical pregnancy” because they do their best to give nothing less than the purest unconditional love to all their children;
For all the couples who would love a child from Day 1 but never get the chance;
For all the people who know that children are gifts to be discovered;
Let our confidence in truth and hope be our outcry. If they never stop trying to grow babies in labs, and if they ever do grow babies in labs, and if those babies grow up, and if society rejects them, we should continue to show mercy and love, for we will stand before God after this life ends, and each of us will face an eternity where one’s worth is not ruled by days.