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The 14 day rule – A brief update

In early December, this blog commented upon the 7 December 2016 conference at University College London, which debated rethinking the ethics whether or not to increase the UK’s restriction on experimentation on human embryos from 14 to 28 days. One result of that conference is that the Progress Educational Trust (the sponsor of the original conference) has since submitted a request to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to open a new Parliamentary inquiry. That Committee’s response (in typical bureaucratic fashion) was to table the request until their current inquiry of genomics and genome editing was complete (see number 6 in their report).

In my Internet stalking of this issue, I came across a mid-January 2017 BBC Radio 4 two-part telecast coverage of the issue by Matthew Hill, which I commend to you. Each is approximately 30 minutes. Part 1 provides background information primarily regarding the general history of IVF in the UK in general and the history of the 14 day rule in particular, all done via present day interviews of the actual historical figures (or recorded interviews done at the time the events were transpiring). Note that the first 2 minutes are unrelated to the topic. Part 2 is similar, though concentrates upon the key persons in the current debate of moving from the present 14 day limit to a proposed new 28 day limit for embryo experimentation. If you don’t have time or inclination to listen to the whole series, consider the following snippets (time in minutes from start of each recording):

  • Part 1 – 12:00 – 15:00 – Baroness Mary Warnock discusses why she and the Warnock Committee settled on 14 days (arbritary, but a fixed number of days made more sense than a point in embryologic development that varied slightly from embryo to embryo). She also discusses why she pushed toward making research on embryos a criminal offense beyond 14 days rather than simply leaving the 14-day limit a guideline (Civil servants wanted it to be a guideline but she felt that making experimentation beyond 14 days a criminal offense would reassure the public in general and the opposition in particular)
  • Part 1 – 26:00 – 29:30 – Discussion of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. One interesting comment by Juliet Tizzard, director of strategy for the HFEA was that allowing public comment seemed to soften public opposition to IVF generally (she later comments in Part 2 that she wants to use the same strategy to push for increasing to the 28 day limit). Dr. Simon Fishel, pioneer in-vitro specialist, noted that the ethical debates decreased dramatically after the law was passed (now that it was legal, it must be ethically OK?).
  • Part 2 – 4:45 – 9:30 – Interview with Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, the scientist who recently developed the technique where embryos are chemically tricked into thinking they have implanted in the womb, which allows the embryos to grow beyond day 6 until day 13. Around the 7-minute mark, she comments on how beautiful the embryo is and describes the different parts of the embryo including the cells that will become the fetus. Narrator Matthew Hill explains that the embryos used are “surplus” embryos donated by “would-be mums” undergoing IVF (N.B. if there are would-be mums, there are likely also would-be babies about – see 7:55 onward)
  • Part 2 – 13:05 – 15:20 – Professor David Jones, Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre argues against extending the limit beyond 14 days, and makes the case that it should be more restrictive than the present 14 day limit.

While listening to the radio telecast, I learned that Nuffield Council on Bioethics met in London on 16 December with “experts from a range of fields” to further discuss many of the issues discussed at the original conference. The radio interviewer described his invitation to observe the one day conference as “exclusive access” which makes me think this was a closed door session (see Part 2 – minute 16:40). They indicate their report is forthcoming.

Finally, a recent YouGov poll in the UK indicated that almost half of those surveyed favored extending the limit up to 28 days. Which means that more than half did not.

I will keep this blog posted on any future developments

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