Embryos from laboratory produced eggs

The London newspaper The Independent recently reported that a researcher at Edinburgh University is ready to seek permission to try to produce human embryos by the fertilization of mature egg cells that have been produced from ovarian stem cells in the laboratory. The research team has taken immature human egg cells produced from ovarian stem cells by as researcher at Harvard and transformed them in the laboratory into cells that appear to be mature human eggs. The proof that they are mature eggs will be obtained by showing that they can be fertilized to produce human embryos. The embryos will then be frozen or destroyed since they are being produced for research and English law requires that they not be allowed to develop past 14 days.

The obvious ethical question is “Should we do this?”

Those who support doing this see the ability to develop fully functional human eggs from the stem cells found in the ovary as a way to provide the ability to have children for women who are past the time that their ovaries naturally produce eggs. They also express hope that the ability to produce new egg cells might be a way around the loss of ovulatory function that is associated with the development of menopause and its attendant problems. It would also be a way of producing a much less limited supply of eggs to use in research including cloning.

But should we do it?

Ethical concerns abound. Is it worthwhile to create and destroy human embryos to prove that a scientific technique is doing what it was designed to do? Is there any way to determine whether children born with the use of eggs developed from stem cells in the lab are at increased risk for defects without subjecting some children to those risks? How could you justify doing safety studies on children produced by this technique who could not give their consent? Would attempting to delay menopause by inducing the production of new eggs within aging ovaries be a good thing to do? Is it really good to make it easier to do things like human cloning?

For those of us who conclude that human embryos have full moral status it is clear that producing human embryos in the laboratory to confirm that this technique is successful and then destroying those embryos is wrong. Even those who do not think that human embryos have full moral status have reason to think that this is not a good path to start down from concern about the safety of the people who could be born using this technique.

This is one of those things we should not do.

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Jon Holmlund, M.D.

I agree, and I think it should prompt us to consider whether human IVF was a line we should have crossed in the first place. Also, I believe it puts pressure on the endorsement of IVF to alleviate infertility within marriage. But it probably will go forward. If I recall correctly, Paul Ramsay objected in the 1970’s that human IVF was impermissible in part because it put the conceived children at risk. Then Louise Brown was born, everything looked hunky-dorey (and she apparently is doing quite well now, in her 30’s), and the technical issues appeared to be past. So… Read more »