A new position statement offers some much-needed ethical recommendations on embryo research.1

“There have been some scientific and cultural changes” necessitating the guidance, says Sean Tipton, chief advocacy policy and development officer for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).

According to the statement, human embryo research is ethically acceptable if it is “likely to provide significant new knowledge that may benefit human health, well-being of the offspring, or reproduction.” The ASRM Research Institute is sponsoring embryo research, with a particular focus on work that is, right now at least, ineligible for federal funds. “When you are working outside of the federal funding system, some of those protections and oversight mechanisms disappear,” Tipton says. “As a funder, we needed some overarching guidelines on what we are going to fund.”

Researchers applying for funding through the institute or other organizations also need to know what the rules are going to be. “The ban on federal funding of embryo research leads to a big void. We felt if we could provide more guidance, it would make other independent research institutions feel more comfortable getting into this area of investigation,” Tipton reports.

The reproductive medicine field is fraught with difficult ethical issues. “It’s a field of medicine where you generally are requiring tissues from two different people with the objective of creating a third,” Tipton notes.

As science advances, longstanding ethical questions become more pressing. Some people previously drew a line at research on embryos in vitro as ethically acceptable only until a specific time frame, such as two weeks. At a time when longer time frames were not possible, it was easier to prohibit.

Likewise, the concept of germline gene editing was at one point merely a hypothetical argument; now, it is scientifically possible. “The concept of germline gene editing is not easy clinically and it’s certainly not easy ethically. On the other hand, the potential is enormous,” Tipton says. “The concept that you can essentially wipe out something like sickle cell disease is not something that should be ignored just because the current ethical framework can’t handle it.”

The concern is that reputable researchers will step away from the field, and leave it open only to unscrupulous or rogue researchers. The reality is, science is going to advance with or without ethical guidance. “You need to have some guidelines on how that happens, as opposed to just saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” Tipton argues. “We are trying to establish an informed framework under which reproductive research can move forward in a careful, ethical manner.”

REFERENCE

  1. Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Ethics in embryo research: A position statement by the ASRM Ethics in Embryo Research Task Force and the ASRM Ethics Committee. Fertil Steril 2020;113:270-294.