'A Good, Memorable Number': Ireland, Embryos, and the Fourteen Day Rule

AuthorSeán Finan
PositionLLB (ling franc) (2016), LLM (2017)
© 2018 Seán Finan and Dublin University Law Society
In late 2017, the Minister for Health Simon Harris published the General
Scheme of a long-awaited legislative framework. It provides for the
regulation of assisted human reproduction and related matters in Ireland.
This paper will focus on one particular aspect of the proposed regulation.
Under the General Scheme, embryos used for research cannot be
maintained in vitro beyond the fourteenth day of development after
That is to say, that on or before the embyro’s fourteenth day
of development, the research must be brought to a halt and the embryos
must be destroyed.
This fourteen day rule is not an invention of the Irish government.
It was first suggested by a report of the US Department of Health in the
1970s as an appropriate limit to research.
It was enacted as law for the
first time in the UK in 1990
and has since become the most common limit
LLB (ling franc) (2016), LLM (2017). An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the
Trinity College Dublin Law Student Colloquium 2018. The author would like to thank Dr
Fionnuala Gough for her support and guidance and Aisling Murray for her insightful
comments. The author would also like to thank Barry Lysaght and the editorial board of the
TCLR for their careful editing. Any errors or omissions are the author’s own.
Department of Health, General Scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017,
available at http://health.gov.ie/blog/publications/general-scheme-of-the-assisted-human-
reproduction-bill-2017/, accessed 6 January 2018. See also the Department of Health Press
Release: ‘Government approves the drafting of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill’ (The
Department of Health, 30 October 2017) http://health.gov.ie/blog/press-release/government-
approves-the-drafting-of-the-assisted-human-reproduction-bill/, accessed 6 January 2018.
The General Scheme (n 1), Head 63, 4 (a).
According to Mary Warnock, one of the underlying reasons for choosing fourteen days as
a limit to research was simply that fourteen is a ‘good, memorable number’; see Mary
Warnock, as quoted in J Benjamin Hurlbut, Insoo Hyun and others, ‘Revisiting the
Warnock rule’ (2017) 35 (11) Nature Biotechnology 1029.
US Department of Health, Education and Welfare: Ethics Advisory Board, ‘HEW Support
of Research Involving Human In Vitro Fertilisation and Embryo Transfer’ (4 May 1979).
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.
68 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
to research on human embryos around the world.
However, over the last
two years, two scientific developments have led to calls to reconsider the
The first came as researchers from the UK and the US reported that
embryos had been maintained in vitro for thirteen days after fertilisation.
This sparked calls to extend the limit to 21 or even 28 days, so that more
could be learned about the early development of the embryo.
The second came after researchers working with cultures of stem
cells found that some cultures displayed a primitive streak: a characteristic
that normally marks the fourteenth day of development.
However, these
cultures are not embryos and, as such, do not fall under the fourteen day
rule. This call for change argues that there is a need to move beyond a
simple time limit. Instead, careful consideration of the morally relevant
characteristics of an embryo is necessary, so that researchers can move
forward with a clear idea of what characteristics and capacities they must
not cultivate in petri dishes.
The new General Scheme is to be launched into these muddied
waters. This article will examine the ethical, social, and policy
considerations that underpin the fourteen day rule. The central question
is whether fourteen days remains an appropriate limit for Ireland in 2018
or whether Ireland is about to invest in a model that is already out of date.
This article will argue that the fourteen day limit remains an
appropriate policy choice for the State. Ireland should not extend the limit
at this juncture, although that is not to say that it should not extend in
future, if there is public demand to do so. In the meantime, public
discussion of the relevant moral characteristics of the embryo would be a
worthwhile exercise to ensure that political and regulatory consideration
of technology remains up to date.
Part I will discuss the background to the issue: the Irish General
Scheme, the origins of the fourteen day rule, and the rationale behind it.
In particular, it will focus on the development of the rule in the UK. Part II
will explore the calls for change in more detail. Part III will make the case
that Ireland should not try to adopt a different rule.
Insoo Hyun, Amy Wilkerson, and Josephine Johnston, ‘Revisit the 14-day rule’, (2016) 533
Nature 169.
See, for example, Insoo Hyun, Amy Wilkerson, and Josephine Johnston, ‘Revisit the 14-
day rule’, (2016) 533 Nature 169.
See, for example, John Aach and others, ‘Addressing the ethical issues raised by synthetic
human entities with embryo-like features’ (2017) 6 eLife e20674, available at
https://elifesciences.org/articles/20674, accessed 6 January 2018.

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