A science reporter named Steve Connor in the UK, has written a diatribe against opponents of ESCR in the Independent. Part of his critique is an unoriginal cheap shot at the Catholic Church and the issue of ensoulment–which is way beyond our jurisdiction here, and moreover, as far as I know, has not been a major part of the debate anywhere. But then Connor goes on to defend the so-called “14-day rule,” which permits embryos to be maintained for 14 days for purposes of experiments. From his column:
The reason why it was decided to allow research on human embryos less than 14 days old was because the ball of cells within the developing embryo that actually becomes the baby–as opposed to the placenta and amniotic sac–does not itself develop until after the 14th day.
Embryologists call this tissue the “primitive streak” and its non-existence in IVF embryos younger than 14 days old was why the 14-day limit on researching and growing human embryos is enshrined in British law. We can thank the Warnock Committee, which sat more than 20 years ago, for this insight. It has proved a remarkably robust argument against those who hold the view that a human being with a soul begins at conception.
Again, most of the people who want to argue about ensoulment are advocates who come from Connor’s side of the street. It is the instrumental use of human organisms, nascent human beings, that is morally objectionable. And as we have reported here, embryology text books clearly state that human life begins with the completion of fertilization, not after two weeks when the embryo implants or when the primitive streak emerges.
More to the point, Connor gets his science wrong. Some of the cells in the blastocyst–the embryo at about 1 week–do indeed develop into placenta–which is a vital embryonic and fetal organ necessary for its nourishment and development. But some of the cells–remember these are the pluripotent stem cells that are so coveted by scientists because in theory they can become any cell in the body–become the developing baby’s liver, skin, blood, etc. They might not have known that 20 years ago when the Warnock Commission sat, but they sure do now.
Moreover, the primitive streak, which is the beginning of the nervous system, is merely the first visible sign of differentiation, that is, the transformation of the preexisting pluripotent stem cells into specific tissue types. But the streak itself is not what becomes the other tissues.
Beyond that, why would the presence of some differentiated cells increase the moral worth of the embryo? It wouldn’t, of course. This is just a false line to be used for now to give the masses the illusion of ethical control. But remember, at least for now, human embryos can’t be maintained past 10-14 days in the Petri dish. Thus, as we see so often, the 14-day rule is just another example of “the scientists” being willing to prevent only that which cannot yet be accomplished technologically. Besides, we already see advocacy for fetal farming among some bioethicists, as we have pointed out here at SHS.