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Extending the ‘14 day rule’ on embryo use for research? Conferences as mobilising points

Neil Stephens and Rebecca Dimond

07 March, 2017

Conferences are important. In our recent ESTS paper, “Debating CRISPR/cas9 and Mitochondrial Donation: Continuity and Transition Performances at Scientific Conferences,” we analysed the 2015 annual conference of the Progress Education Trust (PET) to argue that conferences are significant performative moments in scientific practice. While most conferences are continuity performances that enact both consistency and progress, PET 2015 was a transition performance that sought to segue between two issues – mitochondrial donation and CRISPR/Cas9 – as pertinent and debatable ethical and policy topics. PET is a small UK charitable organization working on assisted conception and genetic policy issues, both as a (typically pro science) advocacy group and also as a host of open debate. In the UK, unlike most other countries, mitochondrial donation had been legalised prior to debates around novel gene-editing technique CRISPR/cas9, and the very organisation and modes of interactions staged at PET 2015 constituted an important celebratory moment of transition.

In this post we focus upon PET 2016, the next annual conference, titled ‘Rethinking the Ethics of Embryo Research: Genome Editing, 14 Days and Beyond’ In this context, ‘14 days’ refers to UK policy (following the recommendation of the 1984 Warnock Report), permitting research on human embryos under licence up until 14 days (at which point the ‘primitive streak’ of the spine emerges, and the embryo can no longer divide into twins). The report became the basis for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that regulated the UK’s (often world leading) research in IVF. The ’14 day’ rule became a standard in the UK and in other countries, and has remained so for more than thirty years.

PET 2016 staged a debate. Through sessions including ‘The 14-day rule: calling time on embryo research’, and ‘What’s so special about the status of the embryo?’ the conference gave speaking time to a diversity of voices on what embryo research has and could continue to accomplish, and the moral status of embryos. Baroness Warnock, the moral philosopher who chaired the initial report and now a crossbench life peer, explained the panel’s reasons for using time to denote the limit rather than embryo development – it enabled clinics to be inspected by those without specialist expertise in embryology.  

It also became clear that the 14-day rule had little effect on scientific practice because it was very rare that an embryo could last as long as seven days in laboratory conditions. The relevance of this (non)restriction, and the stated reason why PET 2016 focused on the 14-day rule, was rendered clear in the talk by Prof. Zernicka-Goetz, who is the only researcher to have enabled human embryos to survive in a laboratory for 13 days, and opened up the possibility that embryos could now survive for longer.

PET 2016 closed with a debate on the ethics of extending the 14-day rule with divided voices from science, religion and bioethics. The significance of this was staged clearly for the audience, with several people arguing that PET 2016 be marked in history as the moment when the embryo research limit was initially contested, with Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre and chair of the closing session noting “in six or seven years they will be talking about this meeting”. If media coverage is a key indicator, then Fox might well be right. The next day, the PET website published a list of headlines that the conference had attracted, including 'A leap forward or a step too far? The new debate over embryo research' (the Observer), 'Former Archbishop of Canterbury says human embryos should be allowed to develop in labs beyond 14 days' (the Sun) and 'Double the time limit on embryo tests, urge scientists' (The Times)

The organisers sought to stage the opening of a new era of socio-technical debate on UK embryo research politics. But it was not a transition performance in the way that PET 2015 had been; while it did enact the opening of debate, it did not stage a celebrative closing of a previous debate. Instead of segue, PET 2016 worked to unpack a previously deeply stabilised and established component of UK biomedical law, and invoke a new era of re-inspection and potential reconfiguration. It brought to the table a closed case, and requested a re-opening. It was a mobilising performance, enacted to mobilise attention towards a new policy agenda. Observing the affordances of this performance, and its potential impact on the 14-day rule, could be a key focus of UK biomedical STS for the coming decade. 

Dr Neil Stephens is a sociologist and Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar based at Brunel University London. He researches innovation in biomedical contexts with topics including human embryonic stem cell research, biobanking, robotic surgery, and cultured meat. 

Dr Rebecca Dimond is a medical sociologist at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. Her research interests are patient experiences, clinical work, the classification of genetic syndromes and their consequences, and reproductive technologies. Her work is currently funded by an ESRC Future Research Leaders award.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.