Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

'The UK should completely deregulate embryo research and place no restrictions at all upon what scientists can do to early human embryos. ' Discuss. Whilst there are strong arguments to completely deregulate embryo research and place no restrictions at all upon what scientists can do to early human embryos, as seen through the need to promote scientific advancement and the argument that embryos accord no special status, governmental regulation of embryos is ultimately desirable.

Instead, one should opt for a 'compromise' position in recognizing that embryos possess an intermediate moral status and therefore should be accorded with a degree of 'respect' to thus warrant a need for regulation upon its usage. In light of a number of scientific advances since the 1990 act such as the possibility of cell nuclear replacement and stem cell research, the amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which received assent in 2008 should be welcomed in encapsulating this 'compromise' position.

This act arguably allows for scientific progression through permitting the usage of early human embryos, yet protects the status of embryos through setting important obstacles prior to gaining access to their usage. Nonetheless, regulating a fast-moving and dynamic area of science will inevitably be a challenging task and one should continuously question the necessities and prevalence of the regulations in light of the benefits to scientific research.

To begin with, it can be argued that the UK should completely deregulate embryo research and place no restrictions at all upon what scientists can do to early human embryos due to the fact that they do not possess any special status and thus should not be regulated any differently to any other biological materials. This is supported by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer1 who both believe that any reverence or special treatment towards early human embryos make little sense.

Instead, as embryos do not possess the qualities which ground our respects for persons, such as consciousness and sentience, it can be argued that the UK should therefore deregulate embryo research and place no restrictions upon their use by scientists. Instead, both highlight that as non-human animals such as primates and rats can feel pain yet are often harmed by what is done to them in the course of scientific research, there exists a troubling anomaly whereby it is questionable why tests on totally non-sentient human embryos cannot be freely carried out.

However, the fact that both recognise that it would be legitimate to use embryo resources only up to the point at which they can feel pain, could highlight the issue that regulation on embryo research should not be completely taken away and instead there still needs to exist a certain limit in which to regulate the usage of embryos.

In regards to early human embryos however, due to the fact that they do not possess qualities which ground our respect for persons such as the ability to feel pain, it can be argued that regulations should not restrict research up to this certain point which would be several months later than the current fourteen-day limit. An alternative perspective in which to argue that the UK should completely deregulate embryo research and place no restrictions upon what scientists can do to early human embryos can be seen in the utilitarian argument.

This is strongly contended by Julian Savulescu2 who argues that even if an embryo can be recognised as a 'person', scientific progression such as in conducting stem cell research will be of such overwhelming benefit that it would justify killing a few innocent 'persons' for the greater good of society. The summary given by the Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority in the polls regarding human admixed embryos can be used to further support Savulescu, in that it was concluded that the public generally opposed to this type of research unless it was likely to lead to medical advances3.

In this way, in the light of potential medical benefits for the greater good of society, it can be argued that the UK should therefore completely deregulate embryo research and place no restrictions at all upon scientists. However, it is important to note that there is still an obstacle to this argument in which there needs to be likely prospects that research using embryos would lead to medical benefits. For example, Savulescu's argument can be severely weakened by Soren Holm4 who has argued that the promise of stem cell therapy may not be as great as is often claimed.

The fact that there exists this hurdle of weighing up the potential benefits to embryo research can therefore illustrate again that total deregulation and a complete lack of restrictions upon scientists cannot be a desirable proposal. In distinct contrast, one may argue that the UK should completely regulate embryo research in not permitting any experimentation with early human embryos at all due to the distinct moral status of embryos deriving from its potential to become a person.

This is supported by John Marshall5 who argues that as the entity has the potential to become a person, it should not be interfered with and that nothing should be done that prevents it realising that potential. In this way, Marshall fully disregards the utilitarian argument in that he does not hold 'gain to be commensurate with the loss'. However, it is important to highlight that it may be factually incorrect to say that all embryos have the potential to become babies.

For example, in both IVF and natural conception, embryos are commonly created that are chromosomally or morphologically so abnormal that they have absolutely zero chance of implanting in a woman's womb and developing to term. John Harris further expands upon another difficulty with Marshall's argument in that in the line of the argument from potential, if the embryo is special because it has the potential to become a human being, then since gametes have the potential to become an embryo, logically they must also have this same potential to become a human being6.

Although one may argue that an embryo is clearly a significant step further in the process of becoming a person than an individual egg and sperm to thus demonstrate a much more remote connection, Peter Singer and Karen Dawson7 supports Harris' argument in seeing little difference between the potential for a sperm and egg in a petri dish immediately before fertilization occurs and that of the newly fertilized egg. In this way, those who wish to use the potential of the embryo as a ground for protecting it cannot seemingly appeal to this notion of natural development.

An alternate sort of problem with the argument from potential is that if the early human embryo's potential to become a human being thus justifies its destruction, this would place doubt on the legitimacy of certain types of contraception such as the morning after pill or the intrauterine device which prevent the implantation of newly fertilized eggs. Following on it can be argued, those who accept sexual reproduction, which involves the creation and destruction of embryos, should thus accept research on human embryos.

8 Hence, although the argument of potential in according them with the same status as people is quite weak, the need to treat it with a degree of 'respect' and reach a compromise position seems most desirable. Instead, it can be therefore argued that the UK should reach a middle ground in regulating embryo research and placing restrictions upon scientists who use early human embryos through weighing up the unique status of embryos and the social benefits in conducting embryo research as embodied in the 1984 Warnock Report9.

A compromise position arises from the fact that an embryo is clearly a member of our species, but this should not necessarily mean that it should have the same rights and entitlements as a person. Instead, embryo research should be permitted provided that the embryo is not simply treated instrumentally as a resource, but is instead accorded proper 'respect' as further strengthened by Karen Lebacqz10 who argues that it is perfectly plausible to do so in embryo research.

This may be further streamlined to argue that the compromise position is not concerned with protecting individual human embryos, but is instead directed towards protecting the symbolic value of early human life. Like primates, while not human persons, there is no doubt that society regards primates as deserving of some special consideration.

In this way, although it is possible to use non-human primates in medical research, there exist requirements in that it is permitted only if the research serves an important scientific purpose which could not have been done on creatures with lower neurophysiological sensitivity. As contended by Dan Brock11, embryos like primates should thus be regulated and given added protection as they have an intermediate moral status not to be used and destroyed for trivial purposes.