Update on Life Issues – October 2006

No regular reader of these Updates will be surprised to learn that abortions in England and Wales have remained at record levels.  The 2005 figures, published in July 2006 by the Department of Health, reveal that while the grand total (performed on residents and non-residents) actually declined, though only by a mere 145, to 194,353, the figure for women residents (the number usually quoted in the media) increased by 703 to 186,416 – the highest ever.  This little downward blip was because non-resident abortions decreased by 848 to 7,937.  The fact is that, for the last 20 years, fewer pregnant women have been coming to the UK for abortions because liberal legislation in their own countries now means that abortions are easier to obtain ‘at home’.

Abortions among English and Welsh resident teenagers also went down by a smidgeon – the total was 39,099 compared with 39,142 the previous year.  However, there was a worrying 4.7% rise among girls under 15 to 1,083, including 137 girls under 14.

The Government’s hope was that easier access to emergency contraception, mainly in the form of the morning-after pill (MAP), would stem the abortion tide, especially among teenage girls, but this has proved to be in vain.  Although the number of women buying the MAP over-the-counter from chemists has doubled, the medical abortion figures, both totals and rates, have proved doggedly recalcitrant.

And what did the pro-abortion industry think of these disturbing figures?  Predictably, Anne Weyman of the Family Planning Association commented, ‘These latest abortion figures highlight the urgent need to improve NHS contraceptive services …’.  Presumably, it would never cross her mind that her promotion of a pill-and-condom culture might actually be the cause, rather than the cure, of the dilemma.

And that’s not all.  Promiscuous, casual, multi-partner sexual intercourse inevitably leads not just to abortion, but also to sexually-transmitted diseases.  The two invariably rise together.  Just look at the latest annual figures. Syphilis up 23% to 2,807 new cases, chlamydia up 5% to 109,832 new cases.  Surprisingly, gonorrhoea was down by 13% – some small comfort that is.

Stem cell technology On 19 July 2006, President Bush used his presidential veto, for the first time ever, to block a Bill which would have lifted the ban on the use of public funding for research projects involving the destruction of human embryos, such as therapeutic cloning for the production of stem cells.  So the ethical battle over the use of embryonic versus adult stem cells rages on.

In August came news in Nature that a new technique might bring a truce.  A research team at Advanced Cell Technology, a private US company, claimed to be able to make stem cells without destroying the embryo.  The technique is similar to preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) whereby one cell is removed from an early, say 8-cell, embryo, created by IVF.  The ACT team had devised a method to grow such cells in culture to produce stem-cell lines, which could be stored and converted, at a later date, into any organ or tissue of the body as possible cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s or diabetes.  Robert Lanza, the ACT team leader, anticipated that his new technique would satisfy all the ethical objections to the use of embryos, since the remaining embryo could, he claimed, be used to produce an IVF baby.

But, as so often occurs, the public relations fanfare heralded little more than a scientific minor chord.  For those who have no scruples about destroying human embryos (and that seems to include most European scientists), there are already simpler ways of producing stem cell lines.  Millions of spare embryos already created by IVF are destined for destruction.  Why not just use some of them?  Cells taken during PGD could also be used to create such stem cell lines.  Or why not instead store some umbilical cord blood when the IVF baby is born?  And although the ACT scientists claimed the remainder of the embryo could be transferred to a woman and go to term, their research never actually demonstrated this. In fact, Lanza’s team destroyed all 16 of the embryos.  And, now in hindsight, he states that the research was never intended to do more than ‘prove the principle’ that stem cell lines could be created using their technique.  And contrary to the initial reports, single cells were not removed, rather multiple biopsies, removing 4 to 7 cells, were conducted.  And, from the 91 embryonic cells removed, only 2 cell lines were produced, so the whole procedure had a very low efficiency.  And even those 2 cell lines were cultured in the proximity of other cells raising serious questions about their true derivation.  The hoped-for bioethical ceasefire was soon over.

Assisted Reproductive Technologies
During August a woman died at the Leicester Royal Infirmary.  She was undergoing IVF and suffered a complication during the ova retrieval phase.  She is not the first UK woman to die during IVF treatment.  In April 2005, Temilola Akinbolaghe died at King’s College Hospital after a heart attack caused by a blood clot formed as a result of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition caused by an unusual reaction to the hormones injected to promote ova production.  OHSS is considered to affect 6% of IVF women.  Other complications include bleeding and infection.  Although these side-effects are not common, there is a death rate of about 1 in 100,000 IVF treatments in Europe.

All of which makes it even more surprising that women are now being asked to donate their ova for stem cell and cloning research experiments.  Alongside this call comes the recommendation that they should be paid for their time, risk, inconvenience and discomfort.  Currently, direct payment to UK ova donors is illegal, though expenses can be reimbursed.  IVF clinics have long been offering cut-price treatment if a woman will donate some of her excess ova to other infertile women – it’s called ‘egg sharing’.  This July, the Newcastle Fertility Centre was granted permission from the HFEA to recruit women to provide ova for therapeutic cloning research, as opposed to IVF treatment.  [Incidentally, the HFEA again showed its cavalier colours because it started a public consultation on the very issue of ova donation in September, two months after approving the Newcastle licence].  One of the greatest obstacles in obtaining embryonic stem cells by therapeutic cloning is that human ova are essential.  And ova, unlike sperm, are hard to come by.

But wouldn’t you know it?  There is now a shortage of donated sperm too. Sperm banks in the UK are in the midst of a crisis because of a lack of sperm donors.  Some 60% of private fertility clinics across the country say they currently having no, or little, sperm being donated.  Several clinics have long waiting lists, and others have resorted to turning infertile couples away.  Why the ‘crisis’? It’s not difficult to understand.  In fact, it was entirely predictable that the number of men donating sperm would plummet.  In 2004 the Government changed the law on the anonymity of donors.  Children of men who donated sperm after April 2005 are now legally entitled to track down their biological fathers once they turn 18.  This abolition of anonymity has also led to tens of thousands of vials of healthy sperm being destroyed because the donors have not agreed to be identified – after all, who wants a steady stream of teenage strangers knocking at your door with the greeting, ‘Hello, Dad!’?

Can You Believe It?
Stem cell technology can be both amazingly complex and stunningly simple.  Some of the experimental treatments have been ludicrously undemanding, like injecting stem cells transformed into neural cells into the blood system where they find their way into the brain and start functioning.  Now comes news from the University of California of a novel method for transforming stem cells, obtained from bone marrow, into smooth muscle cells – you stretch them!  Yes, physical manipulation may be an important step in coaxing stem cells to transform into other, more specialised, cells.  Could it be that such ‘stretching’ mimics the natural pulsating of blood as it flows through the smooth muscle cells of the body’s blood vessels?  We have a lot to learn!

Permanent Vegetative State (PVS)
PVS came to the attention of the general public after the FA semi-final football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough stadium in April 1989.  As a result of the crowd mayhem Anthony Bland was crushed.  He was taken to Airedale General Hospital and later diagnosed to be in PVS – he was never on a life-support machine because he was able to breathe on his own.  But on 4 February 1993, the Law Lords ruled that doctors could lawfully act to end Mr Bland’s life – on 22 February they withdrew food and water and he died nine days later.  Not only was this an appalling legal decision (food and water were no longer to be defined as ‘basic nursing care’, but rather as ‘medical treatment’), but it also caused considerable disquiet about the negative management of other PVS sufferers.  In my book, The Edge of Life, I have a chapter on The Case of Anthony Bland and one on PVS, with some fascinating stories of sufferers who have ‘recovered’.

Now comes news of some additional developments.  In 1996, Louis Viljoen, a 25-year-old South African, was involved in a traffic accident that left him a brain-damaged paraplegic and in PVS.  He had been like that for three years – not a flicker of recognition.  One day, his doctor gave him Zolpidem, a sleeping tablet, to ease his restlessness.  Twenty minutes later, he awoke, smiled and croaked, ‘Hello Mum. Am I in hospital?’  That was in 2000.  Today Louis can hold simple conversations and play games while the daily dose of this medication brings him out of PVS.  From July, a six-month trial of the drug was started in Britain with 30 other PVS patients.

And recent research from Cambridge, published in Science, appears to demonstrate that those in a vegetative state may yet hear and understand while unable to show any outward responses.  A 23-year-old woman with severe head injuries had her brain scanned while asked to imagine playing tennis, or walking around her home.  Her largely non-functioning brain was seen to be activated in the very same areas as healthy volunteers given the same commands.  It makes you think, doesn’t it? It should do!

And Finally
A word on the Blair-Brown political tussle.  The character of our next prime minister matters.  Tony Blair has been nothing but a bioethical disappointment – against abortion in private, but supportive in Parliament; out of step with much of Europe by his personal approval and promotion of therapeutic cloning; courting scientists from around the world to come to Britain to experiment on human embryos in our largely unrestricted scientific community.

Will the son of the manse, Gordon Brown, be any better?  To date his voting record has been even worse.  Since 1990 he has consistently voted with the pro-abortion lobby – for abortion up to birth, for abortion on demand in early pregnancy, for extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, for ‘selective reduction’ in multiple pregnancies, and for the approval of RU486.  He has also voted several times in support of destructive human embryo experimentation.  Mr Brown is a hardliner all right – fiscally rigid and ethically anti-life.

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