Good news for every blob of cells that wants to grow into a human

There was a head-to-head Radio 4 encounter on abortion between Ann Furedi (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) and Andrea Williams (Christian Legal Centre) last week. Furedi had all the poise of the smooth experienced campaigner, Williams had all the arguments – and made darn sure she got them across. Listen to the discussion here.

A pity that Williams couldn’t show the new pictures, from the University of Padova, of twin foetuses, as early as 14 weeks, reaching out to each other and then making social contact. The researchers were able to distinguish between accidental and deliberate contact. So, at least for twins, entry into society precedes birth by many months.

Good news continues on the stem cell front. While it has been possible for some time to convert adult stem cells to the pluripotent cells needed, the methodology had certain dangers. But a new, and much safer, methodology has now been developed. Not only does it work, but it does so more quickly, and produces a larger volume of cells. Perhaps the time approaches when the excuse to cannibalise human embryos will begin to sound pretty hollow.

Terms like zygote, blastocyst, embryo, foetus are necessary usage for certain purposes, although their unfamiliarity tends to mask that these are all life stages of a fellow human being. But of course a phrase like “a blob of undifferentiated cells” is even more useful for rhetoric. I wonder whether its users ask themselves why this blob seems always to develop as a human being and never as a horse or a piece of green cheese.

And do they not know that the axis of the embryo, the positioning of the limbs and the head, the front and the back are settled within 24 hours of conception, and even – some maintain – at the moment of sperm entry? That information is nearly 10 years old. (Nature | Vol 418/4 July 2002)