Stairway to Dystopia: Synthetic Embryos

15 July 2023

5.3 MINS

by Dr John Fleming

Another scientific “breakthrough” has been announced. Now we have a new way to create embryonic human beings, synthetically and not by the normal means of fertilisation. We can take stem cells (taken from existing embryos) and make them into embryos. The law now needs to keep up with what scientists have achieved by making their currently unlawful activities lawful.

So, why were these “synthetic human embryos” made, and how?

For many years, some scientists have been probing an area of human embryonic development not previously accessible to them. That period of time is what lies beyond the 14-day limit on developing embryos in the laboratory up to the time when the human embryo implants in the womb of his or her mother.

Put another way, they want to be able to observe the developing human embryo up to the point where the pregnancy can be observed via scans. They have been prevented in making these observations because of the ban on embryo experimentation past 14 days in most jurisdictions.

Other attempts to bridge this gap in human knowledge using sophisticated culture systems designed to mimic the environment of the womb have not been successful.

However, groundbreaking technological advances have been made that enabled mouse embryos to be developed from stem cells last year. These mouse synthetic embryos “bore a remarkable resemblance” to mouse embryos created by natural means and could be developed beyond a 14-day limit.

However, as science writer for The Guardian Hannah Devlin reports:

“The synthetic embryos grown from mouse cells were reported to appear almost identical to natural embryos. But when they were implanted into the wombs of female mice, they did not develop into live animals.

“In April, researchers in China created synthetic embryos from monkey cells and implanted them into the wombs of adult monkeys, a few of which showed the initial signs of pregnancy but none of which continued to develop beyond a few days.

“Scientists say it is not clear whether the barrier to more advanced development is merely technical or has a more fundamental biological cause.”

So, the proposal is that we should use human stem cells to develop “synthetic” human embryos with the prospect of their continuing development in the culture systems designed to mimic the environment of the womb and notwithstanding any deleterious side effects to that developing embryonic human being.

Assurances Not Worth a Fig

If a synthetic embryonic human being really is a human being, a point about which there seems to be a remarkable lack of clarity, then these human embryos have been developed past the 14-day limit illegally. Scientists and science writers then piously say that the law must catch up with these new developments, as if there is no law already applying to the way we treat embryonic human beings.

Hannah Devlin put it this way:

“Synthetic embryos sit at a unique juxtaposition: scientifically fascinating, ethically challenging and, for the most part, entirely unregulated by current legislation. The latest work by Professor Magdalena Żernicka-Goetz’s team brings these issues into stark relief and shows that developments in this field are happening so quickly that the science is rapidly outpacing the law.”

Throughout the earlier debate on the 14-day limit to embryo experimentation, proponents had to get around the undeniable scientific fact that at fertilisation we have a new human being. So, they appealed to philosophical arguments of a very unpersuasive nature. The embryo might be a human life, but “it” is not a person, they said, because twinning might occur up to day 14.

So, the philosophical notion of “personhood” replaced the objective scientific facts, which indicate that we have a new human being from the beginning and therefore legal protection, being granted at 14 days after the beginning.

At the level of public policy, it seems that the purpose of a procedure is used to define when we are prepared to offer legal protection to human lives: 14 days if you want to experiment with embryonic human beings, anytime up to birth if you want an abortion, any time after birth if you want euthanasia of “defective” newborns.

And now, to further the progress of science, we are being told that we need to extend the period during which we will allow destructive research on embryonic human beings.

So, Hannah Devlin again assures us that the “motivation for creating embryo models in the lab is relatively uncontroversial”, and just so there is no need to worry, and “for the avoidance of doubt, there are no plans to create lab-grown babies”. Note the language being used here. Embryonic human beings are now described as “embryo models”, so not really human beings.

Moreover, while it may be true that there are “no plans to create lab-grown babies” now, why should we believe that there will not be any such plans in the future?

Using an ethics based upon whatever works coupled with imaginative and unquestionably brilliant benefits for human beings in the future, then of course the level of protection due to human beings diminishes.

If synthetic embryos really are human embryos, what we have is a new way of generating an embryo without fertilisation by using stem cells. Perhaps this might better be classified as cloning, since the synthetic embryo may well have the same genetic identity as the one who provided the stem cells. In which case, the same ethical problems arise as from cloning.

Recall the debate on cloning. Human cloning can be of two types: reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Reproductive cloning is done to duplicate a human such that his or her offspring exactly resembles his or her parent. Therapeutic cloning is done to grow stem cells from the embryonic clone.

We said we would never do the first while at the same we legalised so-called therapeutic cloning, even though this involves the destructive use of embryonic human beings. You can never have enough “therapy”. But the issue at stake was the usual one: when should a human life be granted legal protection from those who wish to destroy a human being?

Former federal minister Amanda Vanstone, when supporting the legalisation of therapeutic cloning, said:

“There are different views on when life begins, but no religion has the right to seek to have its view legislated.”

Never mind that Senator Vanstone then voted to have her own religious view legislated.

Question of Benefits

We have been down this road before. The demand by scientists to be allowed to use embryonic human beings as objects of research, and harnessing their stem cells, was accompanied by lavish promises of cures for just about everything from Parkinson’s disease to motor neurone disease to Alzheimer’s.

Years later, no such cures are in sight. Adult stem cells have produced results, but they did not involve the destructive use of embryonic human beings.

The reality is that some scientists wish to see an extension of the rule against destructive experiments involving human embryos from 14 days to — well, to what? They haven’t exactly said.

But the softening up process has begun. The law must catch up with scientific developments, they say, which is code for a demand to change the law to permit what has hitherto been unlawful. But technological developments can never be justified by using unethical means.

Leading British bioethicist David Albert Jones has put it very well indeed:

“A synthetic embryo is not a ‘model’ of an embryo, it is an attempt to make an embryo. If this attempt is successful, scientifically, then it will be wrong ethically, but if it is not successful scientifically, then it will not be able to tell us much about normal human development.

“So far, they have not succeeded even in mice in getting ‘synthetic embryos’ to develop to birth. So perhaps this is not an embryo but an uninteresting clump of cells.

“On the other hand, if we have any doubt, then the embryo-like being should be given the benefit of the doubt. We all began life as an embryo and to manufacture, experiment on and destroy human embryos is to manufacture, experiment on and destroy human beings. It is unjust. We should not be trying to make human embryos in this way.”


Dr John Fleming was a member of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (1993-96), and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life (1996-2016).

Originally published in News Weekly. Photo by Anna Tarazevich.

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