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EMBRYOLOGY RESEARCH SINCE 2000

Fr Dylan James
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Fr Dylan James was recently awarded a Doctorate in Bioethics at the Alphonsianum, one of Rome's Pontifical Universities. He is currently the Parish Priest for St Edwards Church, Shaftesbury, and lectures at Wonersh seminary

His talk was divided into 3 sections

Modern science and the embryo and the first 14 days

Does the end justify the means?

Hybrids and chimeras - monsters
The understanding of Embryology before 1990

The scientific data at the time of the Warnock report in 1984 considered the embryo in its early days of development to be a cluster of undifferentiated cells, each cell being totipotent - i.e. if separated from the cluster it was thought each cell was able to develop into a person separately, though many of the cells would develop into extra embryonic matter (for example into the placenta).

There was also the problem of monozygotic twins (i.e. identical twins from the same original sperm and egg). The morula can divide to produce twins (or triplets or more) and this in itself was considered strong evidence against 'personhood' at that early stage. In the words of Fr Joseph Fuchs SJ 'a divisible person is a nonsensical concept'.
First 14 days
Embryonic stem cells are thought to have the potential to provide cures for various diseases and also regenerate organs in the body. But ripping out the pluripotent cells always destroys the embryo, and as we will see later, the results have so far been negative.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 allowed experimentation on human embryos up to 14 days. Then they have to be destroyed, due to the appearance of the primitive streak. The primitive streak shows the position of the developing human backbone, and its formation was taken to be the indication that definitive cell differentiation had occurred.
A significant part of the justification behind the Act was the theory that human cells were undifferentiated until this 14-day point, so there was no human "individual" present. The early embryo or "morula" was merely a group of undifferentiated or "totipotent" cells. Since 1990 embryonic research has shown that this earlier semi-official view is inaccurate.
Prior to the 1990 Bill, the pro-life argument to the official view was that at fertilisation cell division began working to a human genetic "blueprint". So right from the beginning the embryo was showing a tendency to cell differentiation.
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