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Stem cell-derived embryo models (SCEMs) are model embryos used in scientific research to gain a better understanding of early embryonic development. The way humans develop from a single-cell zygote to a complex multicellular organism remains poorly understood. However, research looking at embryo development is difficult because of restrictions on the use of human embryos in research. Stem cell embryo models could reduce the need for human embryos, allowing us to both understand early development and improve assisted reproductive technologies. There have been several rapid advances in creating SCEMs in recent years. These advances potentially provide a new avenue to study early human development. The benefits of SCEMs are predicated on the claim that they are different from embryos and should, therefore, be exempt from existing regulations that apply to embryos (such as the 14-day rule). SCEMs are proposed as offering a model that can capture the inner workings of the embryo but lack its moral sensitivities. However, the ethical basis for making this distinction has not been clearly explained. In this current controversy, we focus on the ethical justification for treating SCEMs differently to embryos, based on considerations of moral status.

Original publication




Journal article


J Med Ethics

Publication Date



Embryo Research, Embryos and Fetuses, Ethics