The Dickey-Wicker Amendment (DWA) was passed in 1996 and prevents federal funding of research that destroys embryos. This congressional prohibition defines a human embryo as “any organism not protected as a human subject” that was “derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, or any other means from one or more human gametes.” While there has been much debate in the bioethics and popular press media about the ethics of embryo research, what has been almost entirely overlooked is the ethics of parthenote research.
The DWA conflates embryos and parthenotes even though there are important scientific and ethical differences between them. Parthenotes are cells derived by parthenogenesis, the process in which eggs become activated to begin dividing without fertilization. Because there is no sperm involvement, parthenotes contain genetic material from only one source (i.e. the egg). In contrast, embryos are created through fertilization and contain genetic material from two genetically dissimilar cells (i.e. egg and sperm). Another important difference is that while embryos can result in a live birth baby, human parthenotes cannot. Human parthenotes, whether they come into existence naturally or in a lab, die in the early stages of development. Scientists can create human parthenotes in the lab by activating eggs through chemical stimuli that mimic fertilization, but studies in other mammals indicate that, without the required genetic imprinting, further development is ruled out.
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