Recent scientific advances (see here and here) outline processes which may pave the way for embryos to be created without the use of any gametes – purely on the basis of an (embryonic) stem cell. This latest development holds the potential to significantly propel research into assisted reproduction, regenerative medicine, and developmental biology. If the results of the research can be replicated and funneled into routine application, this will represent a remarkable step in scientific progress. It will also represent a stress test for domestic and supranational legal and ethical frameworks on the use of human embryos.
Need for legislative reform
These developments contain an explicit challenge to the legal and ethical frameworks that are used to guide scientific work with embryonic cells. Many national frameworks across Europe technically require the involvement of human gametes before relevant legislation comes into play. The production of synthetic embryos from a single embryonic stem cell circumnavigates this requirement – the technology may therefore, in many cases, exist in a regulatory lacuna. Domestic and supranational regulatory approaches will therefore have to be reconsidered in the light of this new development. Jurisdictions which have so far severely restricted or even prohibited (such as Germany) the use of fresh embryonic stem cells for research purposes may find themselves faced with an opportunity to rethink this approach: if the embryo in question is not a conventional surplus embryo from an ART treatment, but a synthetic embryo created in the lab, does the justification for prohibiting embryonic stem cell research still hold?
Either the absence of regulation because of the lacuna outlined above, or de novo future regulation which puts synthetic embryos into a less restrictive category, may give rise to an opportunity to mature embryos under laboratory conditions beyond the traditionally respected 14 day mark. This, again, holds promise to generate knowledge which will significantly improve our understanding of embryonic development and may very well make a desirable contribution to the improvement of fertility treatment. Such a process would, however, go against the grain of a sizeable proportion of ethical commentary which marks the development of the primitive streak around day 14 as normatively significant: this is where the development forks either into a single individual or several individuals, such as twins. This moment therefore establishes a category (future person) which unlocks the ethical debate surrounding personhood, potentiality, and moral status.
Balancing policy and science
It will be a social and political challenge to reconcile the interwoven interests and objectives of science, policy, and ethics in the light of these new technologies. Ideally, a balance can be struck between respect for social boundaries and scientific progress – based on actual scientific evidence and not ill-informed public sensitivities.