British scientists want to extend the amount of time that they can cultivate human embryos in Petri dishes from 14 to 28 days. This is a highly controversial move, but scientists believe that it will result in great medical advances.
The 14-day limit has stood for 25 years, since the early days of IVF in the UK. After Baronness Mary Warnock issued an influential report on IVF legislation in 1984, the figure was enshrined in legislation in 1990. It was always an arbitrary number, but no one questioned it, mostly because it proved so difficult to keep the embryos alive more than a few days anyway. However, this year, Cambridge University scientist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz cultivated human embryos for 13 days, opening up the possibility of extending the limit even further.
“Extending the rule would have benefits for our understanding of our own development, in explaining why it goes wrong and in finding ways to put those errors right,” Zernicka-Goetz told The Guardian. “However, I don’t think that we should make any change without there being a consensus among the public, ethicists and scientists. We need to set limits within which most of us are comfortable.”
Other scientists are also touting the great benefits of such research. “I think if we could extend the limit for embryo research to around 28 days, the benefits for medical research would be enormous,” says IVF expert Simon Fishel. “It would give us 20 years of research that would transform our understanding of ourselves. There is only so much we can learn from animal experiments, from other species, after all. Certain tumours, developmental abnormalities, miscarriage: there is a whole raft of issues in medical science that we could start to understand.”
Opponents of the move are crying “slippery slope” and so, surprisingly, is Baroness Warnock. She believes that if the limit is shifted, opponents of embryo research will assert that their fears have been vindicated.
As indeed they are. Professor David Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford told The Observer:
“In the original act, a lot of things were prohibited – the creation of hybrid embryos, the cloning of embryos and the genetic modification of embryos. These have all been swept away, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they did shift the 14-day limit. In any case the 14-day limit is not philosophically defensible. I don’t think there is a difference between a 10-day-old embryo and a 20-day embryo in terms of its moral status.”
However, leading stem cell scientist Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, insists that misgivings about a slippery slope are unfounded. The 28-day mark will be “an inflexible barrier” which “would not be changed in future”.
In the United States, scientists and ethicists are also pushing for an extension. At a conference at Harvard University in November, most of them wanted an even more permissive regime than envisaged in the UK. “My view is the 14-day rule should be looked at as a public-policy tool and not as a strict moral distinction between right and wrong,” said Insoo Hyun, associate professor of bioethics and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University. “Is it time to get rid of such lines in the sand and rely solely on clear ethical principles?”
When there’s talk of border crossings and illegal Mexican migrants, my thoughts used to turn to the ugliness of Donald Trump’s dream: "I will build a great wall -- and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me --and I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.”
But after reading a remarkable feature in California Sunday Magazine, I’m trying to think about 66 Garage instead. The name of Mr 66 Garage may not ring a bell with you, but to be fair, it doesn't ring one with him either. He is an undocumented migrant whose truck overturned on a border crossing in June 1999. He hit his head and never woke up.
Ever since 66 Garage has lived in a persistent vegetative state in a San Diego nursing home where he is given round-the-clock care. What a country America is: it produces a politician who treats illegal migrants as if they were cockroaches and nurses who treat them as if they were their own family.
Anyhow, this 18-20-year-old man had taken the “undocumented” part of his journey seriously. He could not be identified and the nursing home christened him 66 Garage, although some of the staff protested that it was undignified. A wonderful woman named Paula visited him every week for 15 years and wondered who he was.
There are thousands upon thousands of missing migrants and their relatives are desperate to find them. A photo of 66 Garage has been shared more than 300,000 times on Facebook. Earlier this year a friend of Paula’s took an interest in the case and 66 Garage was finally fingerprinted. A match led to his sister in the southern state of Oaxaca. Now she can wave at him over Skype on his birthday.
It’s a remarkable story about vulnerability, dignity, blood ties, and American generosity. Read it.
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