Embryo research into stem cells which may be used to treat serious diseases is very much in the news. As the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will shortly have its next reading in the House of Commons, we need to decide where we stand. The issues are complex, and the opinions expressed contradictory. Let me try to shed a little light.
Stem cells, which are found both in embryos and in adults, are unspecialised but have the capacity to self replicate and develop into specialised cells. Consequently they have many uses in the development of the embryo and the regeneration of tissue.
Is it morally permissible to mix human and animal genetic material in order to produce sufficient embryonic stem cells for research which may lead to important therapies? I focus on two ways of doing this envisaged in the Bill. In one technique a human nucleus is placed in an animal egg. It is claimed that 99.9% of the organism is human.
This risks the creation of a human embryo with a non-human partial mother. The claim that only 0.01% would be animal is disingenuous because the issue is not the proportion but the actual effects which the animal element has on the organism. Scientists in the field must be aware that such arguments are misleading, yet their devotion to fact does not inhibit the propaganda.
It is argued that the benefits of obtaining sufficient embryonic stem cells for research provide such potential for the treatment of serious diseases that the creation of cybrids (as these are known) is justified. To which the unavoidable answer is that it would not matter how great the benefit if the procedure were wrong in itself.
Whether research into embryonic stem cells, which are in short supply and ethically questionable, will lead to important break-throughs is a matter of dispute. Many scientists take the view that work with adult stem cells is far more promising. Yet unlikely avenues have yielded surprising discoveries in the past. One can never rule out the possibility of future benefit. But no doubt useful information was gleaned from the experiments of Josef Mengele on concentration camp inmates, or from the grotesque sexual experiments conducted by Masters and Johnson. However, many useful therapies have now been developed using adult stem cells, and none from embryonic cells. But we cannot predict the future.
The other involves fertilising animal eggs with human sperm. This would produce some kind of hybrid – a mixture of man and animal with unknown results. The purpose of such a procedure is not clear, but new information, negative or positive, would emerge.
The Bill does not permit the results of either technique to remain alive after 14 days, and such work requires a licence. However the Authority has only ever turned down one licence application and refusal was reversed on appeal.
The reporting of public opinion on these questions is an object lesson in itself. One recent poll showed substantial opposition, another showed substantial support. The difference shows the importance of the phrasing of the question. The first simply asked about allowing scientists to create embryos which are part-human and part-animal. The second spoke in terms of embryos which were mostly human, that they could lead to the understanding of serious disease, and that these embryos would be destroyed and not implanted in a womb. The different phrasing of the question evoked the different responses.
In looking at the moral issues involved I will assume that the normal human embryo is a human being merely at an early stage in its development. An issue to be discussed on another occasion.
The ethics depend on your value system. Our society has decided that, up to 14 days gestation, the conceptus has no intrinsic value and consequently requires no particular respect. Indeed the developing baby enjoys very limited respect until it sees the light of day. At which point its interests suddenly become paramount. The apportionment of respect is inconsistent and arbitrary but it concludes that what we do with embryos is a practical rather than a moral question.
The Catholic belief is that the act of generation is the biological means through which man, made in the image and likeness of God, comes into existence and begins its journey towards its eternal destiny. Consequently every action which is taken must fully respect both the process of generation and the human life which is the result.
The two issues I have discussed are not identical. The implantation of the human nucleus in a largely evacuated animal egg seems to be the most serious since we are speaking of a possibly human embryo denatured by the effects of animal DNA.
Creating a hybrid through a fusion of animal and human gametes (eggs and sperm) strikes me instinctively as more repulsive. It is hard to think of a more gross way of abusing the process of generation and betraying human dignity.
I write of Catholic belief but not necessarily of the belief of Catholics. It is likely that some, at least, would disagree with me on at least the evacuated animal egg question. Indeed I have read articles and letters to that effect in the Catholic press. But what do you think? Perhaps you have some additional points to add that will contribute to our understanding. Let us hear your views.
From The Catholic Herald, 9 May 2008