The latest abortion statistics –
where are they?
June is the month that the official abortion statistics for
England and Wales are routinely published. But not this
year. Why not? The reason given by the UK
government’s improbably named Office for Health Improvement
and Disparities is a bureaucratic backlog in processing the
HSA4 forms. These are the notification records,
completed by medical practitioners, whenever they terminate a
pregnancy. They are the basis of the annual statistics.
Apparently, the complete set of abortion data for 2022 will
not be released until 09.30 on 1 January 2024. In the
meantime, an ad hoc publication will be released on 22 June
2023 covering abortions for the six months from January to
There is probably nothing sinister about this delay – it
simply smacks of governmental incompetence. Or are the
upcoming abortion figures so horrendous that they might
somehow appear more palatable delivered in two tranches?
The latest abortion statistics – here
As promised, the ad hoc, six-month abortion data were
published at 09.30 on 22 June 2023. They cover abortions
carried out from January to June 2022. They are, as
ever, as expected, egregious.
Overall, between January and June 2022, there were 123,219
abortions undertaken on residents of England and Wales.
This figure is significantly higher (17%) than the 105,488
abortions performed over the same six-month period in
2021. Extrapolating to predict a total for the whole of
2022 suggests it will be about 250,000 – a new calamitous,
Why the large increase? Was it due to Covid-19, Brexit,
the cost of living, ‘pills by post’, or a general downturn in
the value and dignity of the unborn and their mothers?
As ever, most (98.6%, 121,433) of these half-year abortions
were performed under the ‘social clause’, Ground C. If
that six-month figure is doubled to 242,866 to estimate a full
year’s total and then compared with the total 2021 figure of
209,939, do these extra 33,000 Ground C abortions represent
the main cause of the upsurge?
How ever you interpret these statistics, the ugly truth
remains that in England and Wales, from January to June 2022,
there were on average 945 abortions performed every weekday,
every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday ....
Carla Foster and the 1861 OAPA
Because of Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the
Person Act (OAPA), abortion remains a criminal offence in
England and Wales. The penalties, including lifetime
imprisonment, may appear harsh. Yet, the OAPA was, and
still is, justly protective of the lives of women and their
unborn children. Moreover, the 1967 Abortion Act
conferred only a defence against abortion’s illegality by
permitting terminations provided certain conditions are
met. For instance, the upper limit is now typically 24
Carla Foster, now aged 44 and mother of three, acted outside
those conditions. On 12 June, she was convicted and
given a prison sentence of 28 months at Stoke-on-Trent Crown
Court by Mr Justice Pepperall. She pleaded guilty to the
charge of section 58, namely that, ‘Every woman, being with
child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall
unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious
thing … shall be guilty of a felony ….’ She was between
32 and 34 weeks pregnant. She lied about the stage of
her pregnancy when ordering ‘pills by post’ from the British
Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) to procure a termination
during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. That lockdown
scheme, which supplied mifepristone and misoprostol pills, was
solely for pregnancies of less than 10 weeks. That
telemedicine source of those abortifacient drugs, with its
problems of estimating gestational age and detecting signs of
coercion, is still in operation. It should be
revoked. Eventually, in May 2020, she delivered Lily
May, her stillborn daughter, some 2 months beyond legality and
also way beyond the survival prospects of wanted neonates.
The case has caused considerable clamour, especially among
pro-choice women and abortion agencies. They say,
abortion is a healthcare issue rather than a legal
matter. And how can that 162-year-old law govern a
modern woman’s reproductive rights? And what about a
woman’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy? And what
about the right to choose? Calls for the
decriminalisation of abortion are few but loud. The 2009
Labour party manifesto included such a commitment. Yet,
the basically misunderstood truth is this – abortion in the UK
remains a crime, a very serious crime. And the current
government has no plans to change either the UK’s abortion
laws, or its sentencing guidelines.
Of course, this exceptionally rare case is
heart-rending. We are not the Taliban – have some
compassion. This vulnerable woman was reportedly
exhausted, anxious and in ‘emotional turmoil’. Of
course, she deserves our pity. She was not a dangerous
criminal. But she did kill her baby. And the law
is the law. And abortion is essentially a criminal
act. And an ‘old’ law is not necessarily a redundant or
an out-of-date law. There were calls for a non-custodial
sentence, but the Judge explained this was ‘not appropriate’
and that his duty was ‘to apply the law as provided by
So what should Carla Foster have done? She should have
faced the truth, confided in a good friend, perhaps even the
father of Lily, or a counsellor from a pro-life group and then
gone along with the pregnancy for just a few more weeks to
term, given birth to Lily and put her up for adoption.
That course of action would have been safer for her and
life-giving for Lily.
China goes for broke
The Chinese government is debating whether to allow single
women widespread, subsidised access to ova freezing and IVF to
slow the county’s falling birth rate. What an about-turn
from the days of its one-child policy. Such a novel
strategy may be resisted by the old guard, though the assisted
reproductive technologies (ARTs) commercial sector would be
delighted to participate.
The figures speak for themselves – a population crisis is
approaching. China’s fertility rate has sunk to 1.18
children per woman (2.1 is needed for demographic stability)
and its population has begun to decline. Deaths are now
outnumbering births. Fewer children mean fewer workers
and more elderly. What to do? Subsidising ova
freezing and IVF are serious options.
Indeed, the giant leap forward has started. China
recently promised to build at least one facility offering IVF
for some 3 million people by 2025. It currently has 539
medical institutions and 27 sperm banks that have been
approved to carry out ARTs. Currently, these facilities
undertake more than 1 million IVF cycles each year resulting
in about 300,000 babies conceived. If this approach is
scaled up, it could begin to alleviate some of China’s
However, a lack of facilities is not the root of the
problem. It is cultural. The one-child policy has
changed young people’s thinking. Now, amidst China’s
economic uncertainty, they understand and worry about the
financial burden of having children. Now, for many
focussing on their careers has priority while others have
adopted a childless lifestyle known as ‘double income, no
Surrogacy, no and yes
During March, a hundred experts from 75 countries signed the
so-called Casablanca Declaration 2023. It calls for the
universal abolition of surrogacy because it ‘violates human
dignity’ and ‘contributes to the commodification of women and
children.’ Furthermore, the Declaration, ‘denounces
surrogacy in all its modalities and kinds, whether renumerated
or not.’ And it proposes that surrogacy brokers and
participants in the surrogacy process are prosecuted.
Tough words. The common ground of the signatories is,
‘Their willingness to support the request made to States to
commit to an International Convention for the abolition of
surrogacy.’ Good luck with that. Notably, among
the 20 or so speakers at the launch of the Declaration in
Casablanca, there was none from the UK.
By contrast, following their public consultation in 2019, the
Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law
Commission recently published their long-awaited 24-page
Report entitled, ‘Building Families Through Surrogacy: A New
Law.’ The Report makes numerous recommendations.
For instance, it calls for a new legal pathway which will
allow intended parents to be legal parents from birth –
currently the surrogate is the legal mother. Also, the
introduction of legal safeguards and requirements before
conception for the surrogate, intended parents and the child
are recommended. And a reform of payments is proposed to
ensure limitations and the risks of exploitation. Plus,
the Report supports the creation of Regulated Surrogacy
Organisations (RSOs), regulated by the Human Fertilisation and
Embryology Authority (HFEA), to oversee new agreements and
provide support. In addition, it says the parental order
process, which currently transfers parenthood from the
surrogate to the intended parents, needs restructuring.
In the UK during 2020, 413 such orders were issued. And
it recommends the creation of a Surrogacy Register so
surrogate children can access information about their
origins. Furthermore, improved employment rights for the
surrogate and the intended parents are advised so they are
treated like any other pregnant women or those with a new
child. And finally, limited reforms on nationality and
immigration issues are set forth.
This is a big Report with hefty recommendations.
Primarily, it seeks to justify the controversial practice of
surrogacy and to tidy up some of its notorious hitches and
glitches. There is little, if any, discussion about the
ethics of surrogacy. That ship has long since
sailed. How far we have come since the 1984 Warnock
Report stated that, ‘… surrogacy for convenience alone … is
totally ethically unacceptable.’ What next? The
Government will consider the Report and conclude whether to
change the law. In the meantime, I conclude that
surrogacy is best avoided.
Childbearing in the 21st century
The custom of childbearing has shifted. There are now
twice as many women giving birth over the age of 40 as there
are having children as teenagers in England and Wales.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed
that 28,478 babies were born to mothers aged 40 to 44 in 2021,
and another 2,064 to mothers aged 45 and over. By
comparison, there were only 13,739 births to mothers under 20
in the same period. Now the average age of women giving
birth in the UK has increased to 30.9 years – the highest
since records began in 1938 – and the average age of fathers
is 33.7 years.
Such changes in motherhood have been driven largely by career
opportunities and medical advances. Some 50 years ago,
the pattern used to be marry, nurture children, go back to
work. Nowadays, women’s incomes are often needed to
service a mortgage, while long and successful careers have
become more attractive and ‘fun before family’ has become the
slogan for many. Moreover, this current cohort of young
fertile women hope that assisted reproductive technologies
(ARTs) will provide legitimate backups to ensure pregnancies
at a later date.
How wrong can the hopeful be? IVF has a miserable
overall success rate of about 30% at best. For women
over 40, the rate drops precipitously to less than 10%.
They call it the ‘fertility cliff’. So, enter a new
trend – call it what you will, ova vitrification,
cryopreservation or freezing. Basically, it copies the
protocol of IVF with daily injections, monitoring, and so on,
to encourage superovulation, then ova retrieval, assessment
and freezing of the seemingly viable. This is apparently
becoming de rigueur in the human reproductive industry.
In 2019, the HFEA reported 2,500 storage cycles of ova
freezing. By 2021, that figure was 4,200. And that
is despite the cost of perhaps £5,000 per treatment cycle,
plus an annual storage fee, plus perhaps another £5,000 to use
the ova in IVF.
What about the alternative – sperm donation and
freezing? No, no. The conclusion is still the same
– IVF and its associated procedures are best avoided.
and Assisted Suicide
Dignitas and Exit in Switzerland
Switzerland may well claim to be the global leader in
premature killing. After all, assisted suicide has been
legal there since 1941. And, of course, it is the home
to the Dignitas ‘clinic’ in Zurich – the place favoured by a
few Britons in which to spend their last days.
First, let us get some facts straight. Britons are not
exactly streaming into the place. Since 2010, only
something like 360 Britons have gone there on one-way
tickets. That is about 30 each year. In 2022, that
number was 33. In context those figures must be compared
with the approximately 600,000 Britons who die each year back
in the UK. Assisted suicide may be a hot issue, but the
output of Dignitas is numerically tiny.
Second, Dignitas may be considered faddish, but, as of last
month, there were only 1,528 British members signed up to use
its facilities. That may be an all-time high, but at the
current rate of activity, the queue will stretch for the next
Dignity in Dying, the UK’s premier assisted dying
organisation, is a big fan of Dignitas. It has supported
most of those either campaigning for assisted suicide or
attending the ‘clinic’. It is convinced that the UK’s
1961 Suicide Act with its robust ethos is a bugbear that needs
amending or repealing. Yet the Act protects the
vulnerable, punishes those who assist and maintains a
deterrent. That is what good laws do.
Now comes news of another first for Switzerland. A
prison inmate has ended his life with the help Exit, an
assisted suicide organisation also based in Zurich. The
man was declared dead on 28 February 2023, but no more details
have been released. The authorities said that the right
to assisted suicide also applies to prisoners because of their
right to ‘self-determination’. However previous requests
for assisted suicide from Swiss prisoners have been refused.
The question arises, under what conditions would a person’s
request to die be refused? Switzerland may well have
examples of such refusal, but other countries are happily
vaulting over their legal boundaries of eligibility.
O Canada the worst?
‘O Canada! We stand on guard for thee’ is the refrain
from the Canadian national anthem. Hmm. It seems
the guards, perhaps including even the Mounties, have gone to
sleep. Canada is sleepwalking into a dystopian state of
euthanasia. It is MAID (medical assistance in dying)
According to recent projections, Canada is on track for
another record year of euthanasia deaths, with a 35% jump to
some 13,500 state-sanctioned suicides in 2022, up from 0 in
2015. Data from Ontario and Alberta show such steep
rises with Quebec reporting that 7% of all its citizens’
deaths were state-assisted suicides last year. Compare
this with figures from the Netherlands (4.5%) and Belgium
(2.5%). And now there is talk and formal debate about
legally euthanising the Canadian disabled newborn and under-18
‘mature minors’ who are terminally ill. And like
Switzerland, Canada thinks prisoners should have access to
MAID – nine prisoners have so far received euthanasia.
And already people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases,
such as Alzheimer’s, can make formal ‘advance directive’
requests for euthanasia before their mental capacity declines.
Canada's MAID policy of voluntary euthanasia and assisted
suicide became legal in June 2016 – just 7 years ago – and has
been rapidly expanding ever since. Don’t tell me that
slippery slopes don’t exist. Nowadays a sensible
question to ask in Canada is, who is not eligible for
MAID? Canada may yet become the most permissive
euthanasia jurisdiction in the world.
And what about the UK?
Oh dear, there is no comfort here if you are opposed to
assisted suicide. Dignity in Dying and its supporters
are hard at work applying pressure on Parliament at
Westminster and the other nearby associated legislative
Think England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey,
Guernsey, Isle of Man and other adjacent dominions.
Think assisted dying, euthanasia and assisted dying.
Call it what you will, wherever you live, we are under threat.
Here is the fundamental question to ask, what have I done to
prevent this greatest current threat to the value and dignity
of human life? If you are not sure how to respond, let
me suggest that you read (or re-read) Chapter 8 of my 2014
book, Bioethical Issues, entitled, ‘So what must we
Mitochondrial donation (MD)
There are several incurable so-called mitochondrial diseases
that are inherited exclusively from a mother’s
mitochondria. These are rare, occurring perhaps 1 in
6,000 births, but often serious, even fatal, disorders.
One potential cure, mitochondrial donation (MD), also commonly
known as ‘three-parent IVF’, has been proposed. In 2015,
the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)
approved the technique and in 2018, it granted a procedural
licence to the Newcastle Fertility Centre for the creation of
30 MD human embryos.
There are two types of MD – pronuclear transfer (PNT) and
maternal spindle transfer (MST). PNT uses the father’s
sperm to fertilise the mother’s AND the donor’s ova.
Thus, there are two embryos created. The mother’s ‘bad’
embryo with mutated mitochondria has its nucleus removed and
inserted into the donor’s denucleated embryo. So the
mother’s ‘bad’ mitochondria are discarded and instead she uses
the donor’s ‘good’ mitochondria. The donor’s
mitochondrial DNA consists of 37 genes compared with the
20,000 genes in the DNA of the nucleus – it is less than 0.2%
of the total DNA. In summary, the MD embryo has DNA from
1 mother and 1 father, plus 1 donor. This resulting
‘three-parent embryo’ is transferred to the commissioning
mother by IVF. Maternal spindle transfer (MST) is a
similar process except that it takes place before the ovum is
fertilised, whereas PNT occurs just after fertilisation – MST
starts with ova, PNT with embryos.
On 9 May 2023, it was announced that the first MD baby in the
UK had been born at Newcastle via pronuclear transfer
(PNT). The event was surrounded by a distinct lack of
clarity and information. The HFEA admitted that ‘less
than five’ MD embryos had been created and ‘born’.
Unsurprisingly, MD is not without problems. For a start,
in 2016 there was a MD treatment trial in Mexico. It
resulted in 4 miscarriages and two children born, but they
died at 8 months and 6 years. So, is MD safe and
effective? There are no long-term data and less than 5
UK children have been born at only 1 clinic, the Newcastle
There are also technical problems. For example, when
used in animals there is a phenomenon known as ‘carry over’
when some of the ‘bad’ mitochondrial DNA is transferred to the
donor’s embryo so making a cure of the disease less
likely. Also there is ‘reversal’, a replication of ‘bad’
mitochondria that may cause ‘serious unintended consequences’,
namely the unintended severe disease in the child.
Bioethical problems include the fact that MD is germline
manipulation therapy, as opposed to the acceptable somatic
gene therapy, so MD is heritable. It is a crossing of
the previously widely-agreed experimental red line. And
ultimately, MD deliberately destroys human embryos. It
is therefore base. In addition, the purposeful use of
donor gametes, namely third-party intrusion, is never
commendable. The MD procedure is closely associated with
genetic screening and such eugenic practices are never a
praiseworthy proposal. And consider, can the world’s
regulators of human embryo science keep pace with developments
and control its ethics and practice? Also remember that
such controversial science has invariably been wrecked by
lawless charlatans and quacks.
The pressing question to ask is this, who are we? Are we
biological toolkits, an almost endless supply of organic bits
and pieces? And what is parenthood? It has been
argued that MD embryos contain only about 0.2% of donor
mitochondrial DNA, but still three sources of DNA from three
adults are involved. This is therefore not normative
parenthood. Is it a move towards designer babies?
Ask yourself, do all intending parents have the right to
So, who are we? What about worth, identity and
purpose? Or are we merely experimental biological
material? Good medicine is always to be approved,
but the means must always justify the ends. Never say,
‘Let us do evil that good may result’ (Romans 3:8).
Where is He?
Remember the Chinese scientist, Dr He Jiankui, who claimed in
2018 to have created the world’s first genome-edited humans,
the twin girls known as Lulu and Nana? That feat stunned
the scientific community and in 2019 he was fired from his
university job, jailed for three years by a Chinese court and
fined three million yuan (£330,000). The court said he
had been ‘illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing
intended for reproduction.’ He was released from prison
in April 2022.
He is still around. He has set up a laboratory in
Beijing working on the development of gene therapies for
Duchenne muscular dystrophy. And more recently he has
been seeking scientific collaborators in Hong Kong where he
had been granted a research visa. However, in late
February 2023, the authorities in Hong Kong reported that He’s
work visa had been cancelled.
But He is still on the lecture circuit. For example, in
February 2023, He addressed a meeting at the University of
Kent. However, in a shortened lecture, he was reluctant
to speak about his previous work and he refused to answer
related questions. Then in March, He was also due to
speak at the University of Oxford and the Third International
Summit in Human Genome Editing in London – he cancelled both
Apparently, He has spent time reflecting on his past
errors. He is quoted as saying, ‘To summarise it up in
one sentence: I did it too quickly.’ And he has
acknowledged that 'scientific research must be subject to
constraints of ethics and morality.’ What to
conclude? A man can do wrong. A man can be
forgiven. But a guilty man has a history that can never
First CRISPR therapy seeks approval
In April 2023, two US biotech companies, Vertex and CRISPR
Therapeutics, submitted their novel therapy, aimed at treating
sickle cell disease (SCD) and beta-thalassemia, for approval
by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A decision
from the FDA is expected within the next 8 to 12 months.
This is rather exciting. This is an example of a speedy
transition of a potential therapy from tech lab to hospital
bed. In this case, it has come about with a timescale of
only about 10 years. Indeed, it was in 2012 that the
CRISPR-Cas9 system was shown to be capable of accurately
This gene-targeted therapy, formerly known as CTX-001 and now
called exa-cel (exagamglogene autotemcel), is akin to a bone
marrow transplant using the patient’s own engineered
cells. Haematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs)
are harvested from the patient’s bone marrow and subsequently
gene-edited ex vivo using a CRISPR-Cas9 protocol. The
patient is then subjected to harsh ablation therapy to remove
any remaining dysfunctional cells before the edited HSPCs are
The technical aspects involve the precise DNA-cutting ability
of a CRISPR-Cas9 nuclease to silence the gene BCL11A.
The latter is a repressor of the foetal haemoglobin gene in
the HSPCs harvested from patients. The gene and the
production of foetal haemoglobin is usually naturally silenced
in the months following birth, but the re-activation of this
gene produces protein that can compensate for defective
beta-globin in the red blood cells of patients suffering from
either of these beta-haemoglobinopathies. In other
words, the therapy switches on an existing gene rather than
inserting an exogenous gene.
So far, the human clinical trial results have been described
as spectacular. Of 75 treated patients, all 31 with SCD
experienced cessation of painful vaso-occlusive crises.
In the two years prior to therapy these SCD patients
experienced on average 4 such crises per year. Moreover,
42 of the 44 patients with severe beta-thalassemia reported
transfusion-independence over periods of 1.2 to 37.2
months. Just 2 patients experienced SAEs (severe adverse
events). But, of course, patient safety and treatment
effectiveness are paramount. And the use of CRISPR-cas9
raises its known potential hazards of off-target editing, and
so on. However, it will be many years before exa-cel can
be confirmed as truly a safe and effective one-time
therapy. A significant hurdle for the thousands of SCD
sufferers is the cost of such treatments. No price has
yet been proposed but it would be expected to be in the
ballpark of $1 million per person. That would exclude
countless prospective patients in under-resourced counties in
Africa and elsewhere.
Whatever the obstacles, exa-cel and similar therapies for
haemoglobinopathies, are carving out a pioneering
footprint. As already stated, ‘This is rather
exciting.’ And, moreover they come with none of the
usual major bioethical dilemmas like embryo destruction,
eugenics, IVF and abortion. How refreshing!
Synthetic human embryos
Herein, the latest from that novel field of study, synthetic
human embryos. These entities have been making headlines
for a decade of more. But now two research groups, one
from England and the other from Israel, have made a
significant technological leap forward, but have also
unearthed a set of serious bioethical questions.
The two pieces of work were described on 15 June in two
preprint studies posted to the bioRxiv server, the open access
preprint repository for biological sciences. The two
research teams were led by developmental biologist Magdalena
Zernicka-Goetz from the University of Cambridge and by
stem-cell biologist Jacob Hanna from the Weizmann Institute of
Science in Rehovot, Israel.
In essence, the teams have grown human embryo-like structures,
made entirely from human stem cells, using neither ova nor
sperm, or fertilisation, but just single embryonic stem
cells. They developed to a stage equivalent to that of
natural embryos at about 14 days after fertilisation.
Apparently, they resemble human embryos rather than being
identically alike. Indeed, they are also known as stem
cell based embryo models (SCBEMs).
The creation of these entities is justified, we are told,
because they will allow the study of human embryonic
development at stages later than previously possible, which
may in turn advance our understanding of human infertility and
early pregnancy loss.
This field of biology is moving at an astonishing pace driven
in part by a thirst for knowledge, but also by fierce rivalry
between research groups. Indeed, a few days after the
announcement of the Cambridge / Weizmann work, the topic had
moved on significantly. Dr Jitesh Neupane of the
University of Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute reported that his
team had created human synthetic embryos with heartbeats and
traces of blood, typically observed in the third or fourth
weeks of pregnancy. Neupane had dodged the controversial
issue of development towards the foetal stage by deliberately
designing his embryos to lack the capacity to form placentas
and yolk sacs. Neupane insisted, ‘I’d like to emphasise
that these are neither embryos nor are we trying to make
embryos. They are just models ….’ So, dear reader,
be somewhat sceptical about such reports. After all, it
should be noted that many of these, and other associated
findings, have yet to be published as papers in peer-reviewed
Even so, such pioneering work is undoubtedly controversial and
it has provoked some serious bioethical questions. For
example, could more advanced cultural conditions be used to
grow a developing human, perhaps to the foetal stage or
further? Since these synthetic embryos are produced from
stem cells rather than the normal fusion of ova and sperm,
will basic biology require a rewriting? Will the word
‘embryo’ need redefining? What is the legal status of
such ‘embryo models’? Similarly derived synthetic mouse
embryos have recently been reported with developing brains and
beating hearts – is that the likely intention or outcome
within reproductive research with humans? Indeed, in
China, synthetic monkey embryos have already been transferred
to surrogate female monkeys, though all the pregnancies
failed. And whereas ‘normal’ and ‘synthetic’ human
embryos are not identical, do the latter require a different
set of guidelines and regulatory rules? If so, where are
they? More positively, could the use of synthetic
embryos lessen destructive research on real embryos obtained
as IVF ‘spares’? All this posits the big question – is
the 14-day limit for human embryo experimentation about to be
busted? Pushing past the Warnock 14-day rule for
embryo experimentation will certainly be contentious.
Don’t tell me that slippery slopes don’t exist.
Goodbye 14-day rule?
Way back in 1984, the Warnock Committee, faced with defining
an upper time limit for human embryo research, came up with
the bogus 14-day rule based on the appearance of the primitive
streak. No-one thought this was a key juncture in human
embryo development, but it let the Committee off the
bioethical hook and it was subsequently adopted by regulatory
authorities in several other countries, including the UK’s
1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Yet
everyone also knew it could not last – bioethical boundaries
are typically temporary and 14 days is bioethical and
For several years, pressure has been mounting to extend the
infamous rule. Has the breaking point been
reached? The International Society for Stem Cell
Research (ISSCR) is a worldwide body representing stem-cell
scientists. It has previously recommended that human
embryos should be cultured for no more than two weeks after
fertilisation. However, on 26 May, the Society said it
was in favour of relaxing that rule. But rather than
replacing or extending the limit, the ISSCR favours a scheme
whereby scientists seeking to research beyond 14 days should
be subjected to a case-by-case series of reviews with the aim
of determining an appropriate endpoint.
This may sound decent and constructive. But in reality,
it will be out of the frying pan into the fire. For
instance, who is to judge what is an ‘appropriate
endpoint’? In effect there will be no upper limit.
Dr A will argue that his research on model embryos needs 18
days to come to fruition. Prof B will insist on 21
days. It will be like the Wild West. Show me a
fence and I will show you an old ram which can jump it.
If the proposed scheme will weigh research benefits against
bioethical issues, who decides the value of future goodnesses
and which bioethical framework will be the measuring stick?
More good news from hiPSCs
Induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) are our
bioethically-friendly stem cells. We like to hear of
their successes, as opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells
with their inevitable destruction of human embryos.
A study by researchers at Northwestern University, Chicago,
have, for the first time, grown neurons, derived from hiPSCs,
to maturity. Previously, such neurons were functionally
immature whereas older, mature neurons are needed to be
therapeutically useful for modelling pathologies in
vitro. This novel resource opens up the possibility of
additional opportunities for studying neurodegenerative
diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, motor neurone
disease (MND) and other memory loss disorders.
The work was entitled ‘Artificial extracellular matrix
scaffolds of mobile molecules enhance maturation of human stem
cell-derived neurons’ and published in Cell Stem Cell (2023,
30: 219-238) by Zadia Alvarez et al.
Be warned, this sort of work is technically complex and
brain-achingly weighty. For example, the authors
highlight two features, namely ‘ECM-mimetic PAs with distinct
non-bioactive domains show different molecular motion’ and
‘Culturing hiPSC-neurons on highly mobile IKVAV-PA2 nanofibers
enhances ITGB1 activation.’ This is not bedtime
reading. Suffice to say that bioethically-sound
stem-cell research is making progress. For that we
should be suitably grateful.
Bioethical issues to watch in 2023
There are at least seven serious bioethical issues that should
be watched during the latter half of 2023.
First, there is the push to repeal Sections 58 and 59 of the
1861 Offences Against the Person Act. In other words, it
would decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. That
would make it merely a medical issue, allowable anytime,
anywhere. Two of the star protagonists in the House of
Commons are the MPs Stella Creasy and Diane Johnson.
Second, there are calls to revise the 1990 Human Fertilisation
and Embryology Act. It is old and therefore, some say,
out of date. The concern is that any replacement will be
more liberal, more pragmatic, less inclined to defend, protect
and cherish all human life.
Third, a priority for some is to abolish / revise the 14-day
rule as the upper limit for destructive human embryo
Fourth, as opposed to the acceptable somatic gene therapies,
there are calls for a wider approval of the heritable,
reproductive germline editing. After all, it has already
started with the ‘three-parent IVF’ trial at the Newcastle
Fifth, is the restructuring of the Human Fertilisation and
Embryology Authority (HFEA). Its current chairwoman,
Julia Chain, has already stated the 30-year-old Act needs
changing and streamlining, it is often excessively
bureaucratic, over-prescriptive and too cautious in its
approach to science and regulation. Changes are likely
to skate over current barriers and restraints, such as
implementing fewer inspections of clinics.
Sixth, future-proofing of UK fertility / research law.
Some say that implementing changes in these rapidly-shifting
areas currently takes too long. Novel treatments and
laws need future-proofing to ensure the UK remains a world
leader in biological sciences.
Seventh, legalising assisted suicide / euthanasia. Both
the House of Lords and Commons have big guns ready to promote
the necessary law changes. Any such measures in Scotland
will be indicative of the UK’s mood. Beware of pressure
from the Dignity in Dying organisation. Watch out for
progress in the Inquiry into these matters headed by Steve
Brine, chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee.
Lastly, sadly, the above issues will trample over the pro-life
sensibilities of many Christians and morally-sensitive
people. Weep for our nation!
Baroness Masham of Ilton (1935 -
Susan Lilian Primrose Cunliffe-Lister, Dowager Countess of
Swinton, DSG, DL, Baroness Masham of Ilton, was a crossbench
member of the House of Lords, disability campaigner and a
Paralympic athlete. Her curriculum vitae overflowed with
numerous activities, awards and honours. For example,
her 53-year membership of the House of Lords was the longest
of any female peer. She was Vice President of the
Snowdon Trust, founded by the Earl of Snowdon, which provides
grants and scholarships for students with disabilities.
And in 1974, she founded the Spinal Injuries Association
She was born in 1935, the daughter of Major Sir Ronald
Sinclair, 8th Baronet and Rebecca B Sinclair (née
Inglis). She was educated at the Heathfield School and
London Polytechnic (the Royal Polytechnic Institution).
In 1959, she married David Cunliffe-Lister, Lord Masham
(1937-2006), who became Earl of Swinton in 1972. By this
marriage, she became entitled to the honorifics Lady Masham,
and, later, Countess of Swinton. She was created a life
peer in 1970, for ‘social services and services to the
handicapped’ as the Baroness Masham of Ilton, of Masham in the
North Riding of the County of York.
After suffering a T5 spinal cord injury in 1958 while racing
at the Catterick point-to-point, yet despite being
wheelchair-bound, she went on to compete in the inaugural
Paralympic games in Rome, winning the gold medal in the 25m
breaststroke in 1960. At the Tokyo Paralympics in 1964,
she won the bronze medal in the women’s doubles table tennis
(her number one sport). And she won additional medals at
the 1968 Tel Aviv Paralympics. Such was her fortitude.
Lady Masham, or Sue as she was known, was a staunch supporter
of people with disabilities and especially unborn children,
whom she sought to protect from disability-selective abortion
practices. In 2007, she tabled an amendment to the Human
Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to prevent the late-term
abortion of babies with disabilities. The amendment
ultimately failed in 2008. Her colleague, Lord David
Alton, said of her, ‘She was passionate about the rights of
babies in the womb and equally passionate in her opposition to
euthanasia.’ It was in that context that I knew her
because she was a national patron of LIFE, the then foremost
pro-life organisation in the UK. As I recall, she worked
largely behind the scenes, but having her name on LIFE’s
letterhead was always a bonus.
Lady Masham was a prominent Roman Catholic convert. She
and her husband adopted two children, Clare and Jessie.
She died peacefully at the Friarage Hospital, Northallerton on
12 March, aged 87.
The uniqueness of fingerprints
Have you ever been fingerprinted by the police? I
have. Several years ago, I was a visiting professor at a
university in Japan. For some reason, probably because I
was regarded as an alien, I had my dabs taken at the local
police station. I was sanguine about the whole affair –
my Japanese host was mortified.
We all know that our fingerprints are unique. No two
sets of swirls are the same, the world over. But did you
know that these intricate patterns are created during the
third month of foetal development? Those whorls, arches
and loops are formed when fine ridges on the skin form on the
fingertips and spread and collide leaving the one-off
patterns? Go on, have a look at yours now. Amazing
This phenomenon is described in an article published in March
this year by James Glover and colleagues from the Roslin
Institute, Edinburgh in the journal Cell (2023, 186:
940-956) and entitled, ‘The developmental basis of fingerprint
pattern formation and variation.’
These researchers found that the periodic waves are produced
by the interplay of two proteins – one that stimulates ridge
formation, called WNT, and one that inhibits it, called
BMP. It is the interacting of WNT and BMP signalling
that defines the spacing interval between ridges.
Moreover, the ridges emerge from three distinct, anatomically
variable, regions on the fingertips – the tip of the finger;
the centre of the fingertip and the crease at the base of the
fingertip, where the finger bends. It is the precise
locations of these regions and the collisions between the
waves that produce the unique pattern of a fingerprint.
What is the purpose of fingerprints? It is thought that
they provide added grip and sensitivity to fingertips.
And, of course, their patterns have long been used to identify
individuals and to diagnose some developmental conditions.
Perhaps we really are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm
What has happened since the judgement in the Dobbs v.
Jackson Women’s Health Organization case uprooted Roe
v. Wade on 24 June last year? One current estimate
from the so-called WeCount study is that there have been
24,290 fewer legal abortions during the nine-month period
between July 2022 and March 2023 compared with a pre-Dobbs
baseline. Another estimate, from the Susan B. Anthony
Pro-Life America (SBA) organisation, reported in late May that
as many as 60,000 abortions have been prevented post-Dobbs.
These figures are not easy to obtain or interpret. For
instance, there were huge regional differences. Some
states, such as Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio saw numbers
decrease, while Illinois, Florida and North Carolina saw
numbers increase. Some states have shut down abortion
clinics, others have tightened access. And some
abortions were probably obtained outside the legal
system. In addition, there are more possible changes on
the way. For example, currently before the Florida
Supreme Court is the Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality
Bill. If that is passed, it will protect most unborn
children from abortion after 15 weeks. Despite these
caveats, the statistics are encouraging – abortion across the
USA is declining.
A new Gallup poll, published in June, showed that a
record-high 69% of Americans think first trimester abortions
should be generally legal, with 34% saying they should be
legal throughout all nine months of a pregnancy with no
exceptions. These data show how the Dobbs
judgement angered Americans and support for abortion post-Dobbs
has increased. In parallel, Americans wanting abortion
illegal in all circumstances has fallen from 21% in 2019 to
13% in 2022 and 2023.
Also released in June was a US national poll from the Tarrance
Group of pollsters. It showed that 77% of Americans want
some limits on abortions by 15 weeks with exceptions for the
life of the mother, rape and incest. Only 15% supported
abortion throughout pregnancy without any limits. Thus,
a clear majority rejects the abortion-on-demand throughout all
nine months of a pregnancy, which is the extreme agenda of
President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. The poll
also indicated that 26% say abortion should be prohibited
throughout pregnancy with another 20% saying it should be
prohibited after a baby’s heartbeat can be detected at 6
weeks. And 76% of respondents supported the existence of
pregnancy centres that do not perform abortions but instead
offer support to people during their pregnancy and after a
baby is born.
Overall, these polls portray a substantial, but not
mainstream, pro-life citizenship across the USA. How,
one wonders, would a UK poll measure up?
Abortion in France
Abortion is still a hot and unsettled issue in France.
In February 2022, the National Assembly voted to extend
France’s legal limit for abortion from 12 to 14 weeks.
In November 2022, the French National Assembly voted 337 to 32
to start the process of becoming the first country in the
world to enshrine the right to abortion in its Constitution.
In March 2023, President Emmanuel Macron announced that a bill
would be prepared ‘in the coming months’ to enshrine in the
Constitution the freedom to choose a ‘voluntary termination of
A national law made abortion legal in France in 1975, and no
serious threat to its legality exists today. However,
the decision of the United States Supreme Court last year in
the Dobbs case to overturn the US constitutional right
to an abortion has galvanized France to act.
In practice, Constitutional revision in France is a long
process requiring either a referendum or agreement by the
National Assembly and Senate on an identical text that would
have to be voted on by the two houses meeting together at
Versailles. Bearing in mind the French love of drawn-out
bureaucracy, this event will not take place in 2023.
Maybe in 2025?
Stay away from Hawaii
You may be thinking of taking a holiday this year.
Perhaps locally, such as at that mythical seaside town of
Ourgate & Bangate. Or you may be pushing the boat
out. If so, make sure it does not disembark at Hawaii.
Just five years ago, in 2018, Hawaii legalised assisted
suicide. One of its so-called safeguards was a
compulsory waiting period before obtaining a prescription for
the lethal drugs. Patients had to make two oral requests
20 days apart. Guess what? That stipulation has
now been cut to 5 days. But still, that leaves just
enough time for that week’s holiday. And if you suddenly
turn terminally ill, the 5 days wait can be waived.
Don’t tell me that slippery slopes don’t exist. These
waiting times are being cut here and there. For example,
earlier this year, Washington state reduced its waiting period
from 15 to 7 days. Last year, California reduced the
interval from 21 days to 2 days.
That traditional Hawaiian greeting of ‘Aloha’ means ‘the
breath of life’. Are you kidding? How could it now
be less appropriate?