Life Issues Update – October 2007

Of Cybrids, U-turns and Fudges – The Whole Story
Sometime during November 2006, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was asked by two research groups (Stephen Minger’s in King’s College, London and Lyle Armstrong’s at the Institute of Human Genetics, Newcastle) to approve licences so they could create interspecies, human-animal embryos in order to harvest stem cells.

Why do they want to do that?  These researchers want to construct a ‘disease-in-a-dish’ model for studying certain illnesses.  One hurdle in studying the brain cells of say, a man with Alzheimer’s disease, is that he must be dead before such cells can be extracted.  On the other hand, taking skin or blood cells from such a patient and using cell nuclear replacement (CNR), the cloning method used to create Dolly the sheep, it might be possible to produce embryonic stem cells and subsequently transform these into brain cells containing the Alzheimer’s genetic defect.

CNR involves stripping an ovum of its genetic material and inserting the patient’s nuclear DNA from say, one of his skin or blood cells.  Ideally, Minger and Armstrong would use human ova, but these are a scarce commodity.  Their main source, IVF clinics, cannot keep up with demand.  Some clinics have begun offering cut-price IVF treatment in return for donations of ova.  Even the HFEA has tried to help.  For the first time, in July 2006, it allowed women to donate ova for research purposes in return for payment.  That is not only a bioethically dubious practice, it can also be medically dangerous.  Dosing a woman with drugs to make her superovulate can cause discomfort and be hazardous.  And anyway, women are not exactly queuing up to donate.

So Minger and Armstrong have proposed using cow or rabbit ova instead – the former, for example, are in plentiful supply at any abattoir.

But if a cow’s ovum is used, what then is created?  Would it be half man-half cow?  No, of course not.  In fact, the resulting embryos would contain 99.9% human genes and only 0.1% animal. Y et this would be novel science.  Yet it would also be real science as opposed to some previously-imagined science fiction – and so it has become, quite rightly, the source of significant bioethical alarm and unrest.

Enter Anne McLaren, the distinguished reproductive physiologist, who promoted the term ‘pre-embryo’ in the 1980s to conceal the unpalatable truth about experiments that destroyed human embryos.  She has argued that because a Minger-Armstrong entity would not contain the tissues of both human and animal it cannot be called a chimera.  Furthermore, because not all of its cells would contain chromosomes from both species it cannot be called a hybrid.  Rather creatively, Dr McLaren coined the term ‘cybrid’, a human embryo containing some cytoplasmic genes from the animal.  So cybrid it has become – it sounds like a harmless sort of artificial construct and it nicely obscures those embarrassing ‘human’, ‘animal’ and ‘embryo’ bits.

And it turned out to be quite a clever fudge because in December 2006, the White Paper on Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act stated that, ‘The Government will propose that the creation of hybrid and chimera embryos in vitro should not be allowed.’

This resolute response incensed some bigwigs in the scientific community and they began to lobby Government ministers – health ministers were fearful of a public backlash, while science ministers were afraid that a ban would harm Britain’s premier position in the world of embryo research.  Nevertheless, all that lobbying of the men in grey suits by the men in white coats paid off because in March 2007 the powerful House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology published its report recommending, ‘In general, the creation of all types of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos should be allowed for research purposes under licence by the regulator.’  As some sort of stalling mechanism the HFEA was asked, in April 2007, to conduct a major public consultation, entitled, Hybrids and Chimeras.

Meanwhile, in May 2007, the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill was published.  This proposed a ban on ‘true’ hybrid research, ‘unless permitted by regulations made by the Secretary of State’, while allowing for the creation of ‘certain categories of inter-species embryo’.  This decision represented a dramatic U-turn on behalf of the Government, but it also sanctioned another fudge, just in case the Government wanted to change its mind at a later date.

In July 2007, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Bill, consisting of peers and MPs, recommended a free vote in both Houses of Parliament on this ‘very sensitive area’ of interspecies embryo research, and proposed that authority be given to the HFEA for all licensing matters.

Also in July 2007, the HFEA closed its consultation process.  And sadly, but entirely predictably, on 5 September, the HFEA announced that it had decided to approve the production of hybrid embryos, at least ‘in principle’.  Its press release stated, ‘Having looked at all the evidence the Authority has decided that there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research.  However, public opinion is very finely divided with people generally opposed to this research unless it is tightly regulated and it is likely to lead to scientific or medical advancements.’  In the meantime, the outcomes of the Minger and Lyle licence applications are awaited, probably in November, and certainly before Parliament debates the issues – and if I were a betting man, I know where I’d put my money.  The HFEA has, to date, not turned down one research licence application.

Now nobody expects an HFEA-type public consultation to frame public policy or formulate Parliamentary legislation.  Nevertheless, the Government and its cohorts (the HFEA in this case), should give due regard to ‘what the people say’.  That, after all, is the basis of democracy.  Indeed, the HFEA had announced, without a blush, ‘Through this consultation, we want to hear the views of members of the public as well as those with special interest in this research and its potential outcomes.’  Yet, even seasoned HFEA-watchers were astounded by the method used to analyse this consultation.

Mark Henderson, the science editor of The Times and well known for his pro-experimentation-on-embryos stance, spilled the beans in that newspaper on 8 September 2007.  He deftly demonstrated how you can arrive at your desired answer, regardless of the content of the submissions.  Beware, this may shock you!

Henderson conceded that cybrids were ‘deeply unpopular’ with the public.  Of the 810 written submissions sent to the HFEA, 494 were against their creation.  In addition, almost half of those who attended parallel public meetings run by the HFEA were also opposed.  Henderson feigned bewilderment because previous polls had shown that a majority of the great British public favoured certain types of human embryo research, ‘…yet 70 per cent of the written responses were from people who oppose it in all circumstances.’  Then he unveiled the masterstroke.  Ready for it?  He said, ‘When this group [the 70 per cent opposition] was excluded, a different picture emerged.’  Of course it did!  If you take away the ‘Noes’, you are inevitably left with just the ‘Ayes’.  President Mugabe and numerous other tyrants, throughout history, have worked this trick with predictable outcomes.  Henderson’s half-baked conclusion – and the HFEA’s – was, ‘65 per cent … backed cybrids’.

I am still catching my breath at the audacity of it all.  Do pro-life people, and others who care about human dignity, now have no voice?  Have we suddenly become second-class citizens?  Does massaging the figures now trump bioethical reasoning?  Does the Royal Statistical Society approve of this type of skulduggery?  Are a few prominent scientists set to be the masters of our destiny?  What have we come to?

Deliberately mixing the genetic material of two separate species was a bioethical Rubicon.  Human-animal embryos are different ‘in kind’ to normal human embryos.  They blur the integrity and distinctiveness of what it means to be ‘made in the image of God’.  There is an intrinsic ambiguity about their status.  There is an emotive aspect to their creation, that instinctive and distinct distaste for this sort of research, the so-called ‘yuk’ factor.  But human-animal hybrids also present deep ethical, philosophical, and theological conundrums.  Indeed, these factors must have weighed heavily on the Government when it banned all such procedures in December 2006.  And these issues deserved more than a passing glance with respect to the improbable, but tantalising, riches of utilitarianism, global status, financial gain and unethical science.  But it was not to be.

Supporters of hybrid research dismissed us as ‘anti-science fundamentalists’.  We had missed the point – ignorant Christians, crazy pro-lifers, foolish anti-genetic engineering groups.  Look, these cybrids would be only 0.1% animal, a mere whisker of DNA.  They will not be like centaurs or minotaurs.  Besides, no-one is going to transfer these embryos to a womb and after all, they must be destroyed before 14 days.  And what is more, these cybrids could be the key to understanding and treating Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and all sorts of other nasty degenerative diseases.  Silly us, we hadn’t grasped these ‘facts’.

I’ve not finished yet – it gets even worse.  Call them slippery slopes or runaway trains, we are all familiar with dire ideas that suddenly ignite and then spread like wildfire – abortion, divorce, gambling, drug abuse and euthanasia spring to mind.  Here’s one more for the list.  On 8 October 2007, this dozy Government, in its response to the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report on the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, went the whole hog and proposed that researchers be allowed to create not just cybrids, but also chimeras, and true hybrid embryos too!

In 1990, the law of the land, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, banned all of this.  You may slowly shake your head and mutter, ‘Where will it end, where will it all end?’  I don’t know.  But I do know this – you can have your final say during the passage of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill this winter.  I strongly suggest that you speak to an MP near you.

Teenage Abortion
According to the latest Department of Health figures, the overall picture of abortion in England and Wales is worse than ever.  There was a total of 201,173 abortions during 2006 – the first time the 200,000 barrier has ever been breached.

Record numbers of teenage girls are having abortions – a total of 41,286 girls aged 13 to 19 in England and Wales during 2006.  This is 2,187, or 5.6%, up on the previous year.  Within this total there were 3,990 abortions carried out on girls under 16 years old – the age of consent.  The demographics are also changing so that now the age group most likely to have an abortion has shifted from women in their early twenties to 19-year-old girls, with 35 in every 1,000 of them undergoing a termination.

This is depressing news.  The Government has been spending colossal sums of money on teenage sex education and access to contraception, and the situation is still going from bad to worse.  The minister of health, Caroline Flint, commenting on these figures maintained that, ‘improving access to contraception’ was the way forward.  How many more years dare those in authority repeat this tired, old mantra?

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was no better.  It declared, ‘This now represents a major public health issue, and a failure of preventative medicine.’  Do spokespeople actually get paid for regurgitating statements as wearisome as these?

There is a teenage crisis out there.  In fact, it’s on our doorstep – we all know teenagers.  Some put the blame on easy abortion, which some teenagers now regard as a form of contraception.  Some blame the ‘cult of celebrity’ with its promotion of alcohol and drug abuse and promiscuity.  Some blame the parents.  Some blame the teachers.  Some even blame the teenagers.  This blame game solves nothing – the twofold essence of blame is that it wants to shift the fault to someone else while ducking all personal responsibility.

The key question is this: how do we bring truth and reformation to this crisis?  I know of nothing better than that old Bible-centred slogan – ‘purity before marriage and fidelity within marriage’.  When tried, that has always worked.

Amnesty International and Its Muddled Thinking
Amnesty International (AI), the human rights charity, has recently adopted a new basic policy.  AI has traditionally sidestepped the abortion issue, but in April 2007 it argued that abortion is a fundamental human right.  Yes, read that again. ‘… abortion is a fundamental human right.’  Surely AI is familiar with Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which declares that, ‘Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law.  No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally…’  If there is to be a fundamental human right, then surely it is to life, not abortion.

AI back-peddled fast and claimed that it was merely supporting the decriminalisation of abortion and women’s access to safe and legal abortion facilities, and then only in cases of rape, incest and risk to the mother’s life.  But many AI members, including some high-profile Roman Catholics, such as Rev. Michael Evans (Bishop of East Anglia), and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Catholic church in Scotland, have grasped the inconsistency of opposing violence against grown-up humans while supporting violence against unborn humans, and resigned their AI membership.

The least one can say is that AI’s new stance is odd – it smacks of political correctness rather than principled compassion.  There is AI implacably opposed to the death penalty for convicted criminals, including murderers.  And there is AI also implacably supportive of the death penalty for the innocent unborn.

Probably not many evangelical Christians belong to AI.  It is to be expected that their membership numbers and donations will now plummet.

A Dozen Headlines
Here are a dozen headlines gleaned from national newspapers over the last few weeks.

Six bad ones
1] DIY abortions are safe, MPs told.
2] NHS clinic to help lesbians get pregnant.
3] Egg freezing – putting motherhood on ice.
4] Sexual infection ‘rife among teenage girls’.
5] Schools give morning-after pill to girls as young as 11.
6] Premature babies die as doctors ‘won’t even try’ to save them.

Six good ones
1] Talk can light up damaged brains.
2] [Adult] stem cell therapy ‘could replace live transplants’.
3] [Adult] stem cell injection trials raise hope of cure for MS.
4] A longer life and in better health – marriage really is good for you.
5] Scientists offer hope to heart attack victims in [adult] stem cell trial.
6] Human stem cells can be produced without embryos ‘within months’.

What do they tell us about bioethical issues in our land?  That is a rhetorical question – there are no prizes for the best answers.  Try composing a 100-word response in your own head.

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