THE COMMITTEE'S CONCLUSION
4.21 Whilst respecting the deeply held views of those who regard
any research involving the destruction of a human embryo as wrong
and having weighed the ethical arguments carefully, the Committee
is not persuaded, especially in the context of the current law
and social attitudes, that all research on early human embryos
should be prohibited.
The fourteen days limit
4.22 If the respect to be accorded to an embryo increases as it
develops, this is a gradual process and it may be difficult to
establish precisely the point of transition from one stage to
the next. The 1990 Act established 14 days as the limit for research
on early embryos. Fourteen days has an objective justification
insofar as it represents the stage at which the primitive streak,
the precursor of the development of a nervous system, begins to
appear. This limit seems to have been widely accepted, and the
research done under the Act under licence from the HFEA has attracted
very little criticism from those who accept the case for research
on early embryos. We have received no evidence to suggest that,
if research on human embryos is to continue, there should be a
different limit. In point of fact the stage at which stem cells
need to be extracted for research is very much earlier than thatat
the blastocyst stagewhen the early embryo is still smaller
than a pinhead. The Committee considers that 14 days should
remain the limit for research on early embryos.
What does respect for
the early embryo mean in practice?
4.23 The Warnock Committee recommended that "the embryo of
the human species should be afforded some protection in law"
but that protection could be waived in certain specific circumstances.
Some of our witnesses took issue with the idea of a status that
attracted only limited protection, arguing that it was hypocritical
to profess respect for something you were going to destroy. It
is true that if an embryo had full human rights it would be inconsistent
to do anything that had the effect of destroying it. But to maintain
a position that falls short of total protection for the embryo
does not in our view equate to a total absence of respect.
4.24 Nevertheless there can be confusion about how
respect for an embryo should be demonstrated. It may be helpful
to try to clarify it. It is sometimes assumed that respect simply
means the respectful treatment and disposal of embryonic tissue
in the laboratory. This is certainly important, as with any human
tissue. The reaction to the removal of organs from children at
Alder Hey Hospital shows the importance attached to the physical
treatment of human tissue, in that case body parts, even when
it is no longer alive.
4.25 When living tissue is involved, a further degree
of sensitivity is necessary. The 1990 Act requires this to be
demonstrated in the following ways:
(a) through the extensive restrictions
that are rightly placed on the use of embryosthe 1990 Act
permits research on embryos to be carried out only if there is
no alternative available and it is necessary or desirable to achieve
one of the permitted purposes;
(b) through strict adherence to the rules governing
the informed consent of the donors (we return to this issue in
(c) through restrictions on export where restrictions
on use after export could not be overseen or enforced;
(d) through restrictions on mixing with non-human
(e) through meticulous record-keeping of the
creation and disposal of early embryos for research so that every
embryo is accounted for.
The creation of embryos
4.26 At present research on embryos is conducted almost exclusively
on embryos created for the purpose of IVF treatment which are
surplus to requirements and are donated specifically for research
purposes. Between 1 August 1991 and 31 March 1999 53,497 surplus
embryos were donated for research.
The 1990 Act also permits the creation of embryos for research.
This was an issue on which the Warnock Committee was divided.
It recommended by only a narrow majority in favour of allowing
the creation of embryos for this purpose. Since the Act came into
force 118 embryos have been created for research.
4.27 The creation of embryos (whether by IVF or CNR)
for research purposes raises difficult issues. Some argue that,
if an embryo is destined for destruction, it is more honest to
create it specifically for the purpose of research than to use
one created for reproductive purposes. But most of those who commented
on this issue regarded it as preferable to use surplus embryos
than to create them specifically for research. They took the view
that an embryo created for research was quite clearly being used
as a means to an end, with no prospect of implantation, whereas
at the time of creation the surplus embryo had a prospect of implantation,
even if, once not selected for implantation (or freezing), it
would have to be destroyed. We agree that for this reason it is
preferable to use surplus embryos for research purposes if the
same results can be achieved with them. It is currently unavoidable
that there should be some surplus embryos from IVF treatment,
although desirable that the numbers should be reduced as more
effective techniques are developed.
4.28 There may, however, be some research needs for
embryos that cannot be met by the use of surplus embryos, for
example when the research is concerned with the act of fertilisation
itself. Two examples of such research that were licensed by the
HFEA are: to test techniques of freezing eggs, which are very
fragile, in order to assess the normality of an embryo created
from an egg that has been thawed and fertilised; and the development
of Intra-Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection. This procedure involves
the direct injection of a sperm into an egg as a means of securing
fertilisation by immature sperm. It was necessary to create an
embryo to test the effectiveness of the technique and demonstrate
The very small number of embryos created over the last ten years
suggests that in practice there is little demand to create embryos
by IVF for research. The Committee believes that embryos should
not be created specifically for research purposes unless there
is a demonstrable and exceptional need which cannot be met by
the use of surplus embryos.