Research on Aborted Live Embryos and Fetuses

There are major conceptual difficulties involved in describing a previously implanted entity that is expelled or removed alive from a pregnant woman's body (or removed alive from attachment to an artificial placenta). One candidate term is abortus; another is fetus ex utero or embryo or fetus outside the uterus. Adjectives applied to such entities include previable or nonviable and viable. A viable fetus outside the uterus is in fact a newborn infant, albeit one that may be seriously premature. In addition the notion of viability is elastic, sometimes seeming to mean the gestational age, weight, or length at which the smallest known infant has survived, at other times seeming to mean the stage at which a stipulated percentage of infants survive, given the assistance of technological means of life support.

Three circumstances can be envisioned in which the question of research on formerly implanted, living embryos or fetuses could arise. First, the surgical removal of an ectopic pregnancy could provide a still-living embryo or fetus. Second, a spontaneous miscarriage could result in the delivery of a live embryo or fetus. Third, an already implanted embryo or fetus could be aborted by means that make it either possible or likely that an intact, living embryo or fetus will result from the abortion procedure.

There is no clear consensus on the ethical justifiability of research on living human embryos or fetuses outside the uterus. In the United Kingdom, two official reports reflect a clear trend in a more conservative direction. In 1972 the Peel Committee affirmed the scientific value of research on clearly previable fetuses outside the uterus and permitted many kinds of research on such fetuses (United Kingdom, 1972). However the Polkinghorne Committee report of 1989 expressly rejected the position of the Peel Committee, arguing that the only morally relevant distinction was between living and dead fetuses, not the distinction between previable and viable fetuses (Polkinghorne). In the United States the U.S. Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects allowed no significant procedural changes in the abortion procedure solely for research purposes and restricted what could be done with the live, delivered embryo or fetus to intrusions that would not alter the duration of its life. Recommendation 1100 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (1989) also discussed "the use of human embryos and fetuses in scientific research." Its recommendation clearly reflected the ambivalence of ethical opinion on research involving live embryos or fetuses outside the uterus. After stating that "Experiments on living embryos or foetuses, whether viable or not, shall be prohibited," the recommendation continued as follows: "None the less, where a state authorises certain experiments on non-viable foetuses or embryos only, these experiments may be undertaken in accordance with the terms of this recommendation and subject to prior authorisation from the health or scientific authorities or, where applicable, the national multidisciplinary body" (Council of Europe, p. 6).

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