Using human embryos for research is highly controversial because it requires determining at what stage during development should special protections be granted. More often than not, it is linked to political debates around abortion. As a result, the United States does not have regulations for human embryo research. Instead, the U.S. bans research using federal funds, but allows research to be conducted using private funding.
In 2021, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) developed guidelines on how human embryo research should be conducted — including having work overseen by an independent body to ensure ethical practices. Due to the controversial nature of this field of study, it is the best interest of those working with human embryos to be open and transparent about how their research is conducted and appropriately follow guidelines. One way to be transparent is have ethics statements describing research oversight on all human embryo publications.
Transparency Is the Best Practice
Scientific research involves developing a hypothesis, testing it, and communicating the results to the public. Modern scientists communicate their findings by publishing research in peer-reviewed journals. Journal editors often function as safeguards by ensuring publications are screened for accuracy and that researchers have adhered to ethical guidelines. For example, biomedical journals, which publish research on humans, have specific requirements for documentation and ethical statements within manuscripts. These may include details such as the name of the oversight committee, the clinical trial number, and how informed consent was obtained.
A recent article coauthored by Baker Institute nonresident fellow and Wake Forest University philosophy professor Ana S. Iltis, former Rice University student Akshaya Venkatesh, and myself analyzes one mechanism that can increase human embryo research transparency — requiring publications to have an ethics statement.
Our survey of the top biomedical journals found that, only one publisher — Nature Portfolio, which published eight journals in our sample — required information on the oversight of human embryo research to be described in its articles. Although many journals did not request this information, all human embryo research articles in our survey sample from 2016–22 included some type of ethics statement related to the use of human embryos. These varied in length, location, and content, however.
Based on our findings, we recommend that publishers require statements regarding the use of human embryos. These statements should:
- Be located in the method section of the article.
- Include the name of the ethical oversight committee or authority that approved the study.
- Describe the informed consent process and how the embryos were obtained.
- Detail how many embryos were used and how long they were allowed to develop.
- Identify the guidelines and laws the researchers followed.
With highly controversial research issues like human embryo research, scientists should err on the side of providing too many rather than too few details related to the ethical oversight of the work. This information will help assure readers that research was conducted ethically, especially in cases where there is no federal oversight. It is important for researchers to demonstrate to the public that studies involving human embryos are being conducted conscientiously, and statements that clearly attest to this are a simple but important way to do so.
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