Tomorrow and Tuesday British MPs are to vote on research on human embryonic stem cells. It’s an intensely controversial area. On the one hand, the scientists involved in the research argue that the use of such cells from human embryos will lead to significant advances in understanding numerous diseases, such as Alzheimers. According to the British edition of The Week, which covers the reports of the press for the previous week a month or so ago, the government’s bill to permit such experimentation had the support of 200 charities. The bill has the staunch backing of premier Gordon Brown himself, who in an article in one of the broadsheet newspapers today declared that it had his total backing and repeated the arguments that it would lead to disease.
Others, particularly members of the opposition with strong religious convictions, are not so sure. One of the issues being debated is the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, in which DNA from the nucleus of human cells will be implanted into those of animals to create chimeras that will be 99.9 per cent human. The debate will also include the creation of ‘saviour siblings’, children deliberately created to be genetic or medical donors for older brothers or sisters suffering from disease, and the morality of creating children without fathers through artificial insemination. The veteran Conservative MP, Anne Widdecombe, who has very strong religious views, stated in an interview on the BBC Six O’clock news tonight that unlike adult and umbilical stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research had produced absolutely no results so far. However, as embryonic stem cell research is morally problematic, the scientists involved should show that it will produce the scientific advances they claim before such experimentation may be permitted. She is not alone. I’ve come across statements on some American Conservative newswebsites from businessmen running biotech companies, whose interests include stem cell research, that they are not involved with human embryonic stem cells not just because it conflicts with their Christian morals, but also for the entirely practical reason that such research so far has produced no results.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, such as the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, have argued that such research is immoral because it implicitly declares that some human beings have no intrinsic value and so may be treated or abused however society wishes. His comments were greeted with sneers from some particularly anti-religious members of the press, such as the Guardian’s and Observer’s journalist, Polly Toynbee. Toynbee dismissed Wright’s concerns as ‘religious’ and stated that it was irrational, because it gave DNA, a mere molecule, more rights than a human suffering from one of the diseases such research is supposed to cure. This is, however, to misunderstand Wright’s point. DNA is indeed a molecule, but through it scientists plan to create a human deliberately for the purposes of experimentation. The moral question is not about DNA – though they are one part of it – but about the status and creation of human, or partly human creatures for experimentation. And such grave concerns about the use and morality of genetic engineering is by no means confined to people of faith. In 1969 the biologists James Shapiro and Jonathan Beckwith isolated the first gene, belonging to bacteria allowing them to ingest milk sugars. The discovery made the first page of the New York Times, where it was hailed as the beginning of a new genetic age. Shapiro, however, was so horrified by the implications of his discovery that he announced his retirement from science and fled to Cuba to teach genetics. He quickly decided that he’d made the wrong career choice, however, and returned to America two years later, and has told journalists since that he would not repeat that episode. 1 Other scientists shared his concerns. In 1976 Irwin Chargaff, a biochemist at Columbia University, questioned the morality of genetic experimentation, writing ‘have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists?’ 2 This was followed by a letter to Science by Philip Siekevitz, a biologist at Rockefeller university, expressing serious concerns about genetic research and its potential dangers, and urging scientists to restrain their curiosity:
‘Are we really that much farther along on the path to comprehensive knowledge that we can forget the overwhelming pride with which Dr. Frankenstein made his monster and the Rabbi of Prague made his Golem? Those who would answer ‘Yes’ I would accuse of harboring that sin which the Greeks held to be one of the greatest, that of overweening pride. Like the physicists before us, we have entered the realm of the Faustian bargain, and it behooves all of us biologists to think very carefully about the conditions of these agreements before we plunge ahead into the darkness.’ 3
His fears are not unfounded. The technique of cloning an organism by replacing the nucleus of a different, host cell, with that of animal to be cloned and then implanting the resulting cell in the womb was first suggested in 1938 by Hans Spermann in Germany. Amongst those interested in his theory were members of the Nazi regime, who saw it as another method of creating the master race at the heart of Hitler’s eugenics and racial theories. Fortunately his ideas were impracticable because the technology of the time simply wasn’t advanced enough. 4 Following the creation of Dolly the Sheep by cloning, President Bill Clinton under advice from a specially convened Federal bioethics commission in May 1997 attempted to ban human nuclear transfer cloning. This was rejected by Congress, which did, however, pass his bill to remove federal funding from – but not ban – human cloning for research purposes. The British government legalised human cloning for scientific research in January 2001, stipulating that such embryos should be used solely for research and not implanted in a womb. However, there is a loophole in the legislation in that implantation is relatively simple procedure that could be done in an hour, and such a process could be done quite legally in any country that had not adopted the same legislation as Britain. 5 One of the serious issues that constantly recurs during debates on cloning is the deliberate creation of clones as spare parts for existing humans, as in the recent SF film, The Island, or the SF book, Mortal Gods. In these fictional works, however, the clones used as unwilling donors for existing humans are functioning adults, rather than embryos. Nevertheless, the moral problem in using embryos as a source of spare parts for transplant remains.
Amongst those who have written on the moral problems presented by current genetic research are doctors and scientists of Christian faith. Dr. Patrick Dixon, a Christian pastor and medical doctor, has stated his reasons for unease about the use of human foetal tissue in transplant surgery. While he has no objections to the use of material from a stillborn or miscarried child, as the unfortunate baby is already dead and so the process is similar to the use of transplanted organs from an adult, he makes it clear that he is ‘very unhappy’ about the use of foetal tissue because it is produced through deliberately induced abortions. At the moment, existing legislation means that there must be no relationship between the clinic performing the abortion and those conducting the research. He has stated, however, that he is slightly less uneasy about experiments on fertilised eggs and small balls of cells up to the first week of life, partly because of the need to be consistent. Some forms of birth control now used are not contraceptives but effectively work by aborting the very early fertilised embryo, and so would have to be declared illegal if conception is considered as the beginning of human life. For example, the coil works to prevent pregnancy not through preventing conception, but by preventing the fertilised cell from adhering to the walls of the womb, thus in a strict sense producing a possible abortion. 6 He states, however, that he does not consider it right to deliberately fertilise human eggs for the purpose of experimentation, as this appears to him to trivialise the nature of life itself. 7 His views are shared by many other doctors and medical professionals of Christian faith. In 1990 the Christian Medical Fellowship, which has a membership of about 4,500 British doctors, submitted an article outlining its concerns and suggested ethical guidelines for research to the British Medical Association’s working party on genetic engineering. This made a number of valuable recommendations, including the following:
On the subject of possible exploitation of people for research purpose, it stated that ‘Christians are concerned that the individual, particularly if weak or disadvantaged in any way, is protected. Those who might be benefited by advances in genetic research are vulnerable to being persuaded to be ‘guinea pigs’ and exploited either commenercially or by prestige-seeking research workers.
The child needs protection and the status of the embryo and foetus must also be considered. Counselling should be provided by well-informed sympathetic clinicians, particularly clinical geneticists rather than by those whose commitment is primarily to research.’ 8
On the status of the pre-implantation embryo, the Fellowship stated that
‘members of the CMF vary in their views as to the status of the fertilised ovum and pre-implantation embryo. Many believe that from teh time of fertilisation the ‘image of God’ is present, thus making the embryo a unique person who should be recognised and treated in all respects as a neighbour. They would therefore find all the following techniques unacceptable.
Others believe that although at the early stages the pre-implantation embryo is indisputably human, it has not yet the attributes of the ‘image of God’ and so may be implanted or discarded.
Nevertheless, there must be atime at which such attributes and status are attained. All members agree that once they are attained, that individual is of infinite value. All agree too that the relationships between husband and wife, parent adn child are of central importance both for the well-being of the individual and for the whole of society. We believe that children are entrusted to their parents to be nurturned and brought to maturity as individuals in their own right.’ 9
Despite their differences of opinion on the status of pre-implantation embryos, the Fellowship condemned cloning and the creation of chimeras through the fusion of human and animal sex cells that proceed to bastocyst and beyond. The Fellowship declared that these techniques were ‘unacceptable since we believe that humans, made in the image of God, are distinct from the animals and should remain so. Each individual is unique and that distinctiveness is important both to that person and to society. It is true that identical twins occur naturally and that each is a person in his or her own right, but some twins do have difficulties establishing their own identity.’ 10 In the submission’s conclusion, the Fellowship stated that they believed that ‘doctors should acts as stewards, helping mankind to make the most of its potential and prepared to correct abnormalities, but not as dictators, manipulating all for selfish ends.
Inevitably there is a difference of opinion as to where these roles begin and end. Some feel that work on early embryos is unacceptably interfering adn that the risk of disaster outweighs the potential benefits. Others believe that cautious exploration is the right way forward. All Christian Medical Fellowship members agree that we are responsible now to our patients and their families, but ultimately responsible to our Creator for the decisions we make today.’ 11
The debate over the morality of human embryo research and relating fields such as cloning and genetic engineering is not simply one of religious faith in conflict with science, as those concerned with the ethical implications of such research include practising scientists and medical doctors, both religious and secular. Moreover, the ethical concerns expressed by religious non-scientists are entirely genuine problems, which need to be addressed. The great American bioethicist and Biblical commentator, Dr. Leon R. Kass, discussing cloning, declared that it provided ‘the occasion as well as the urgent necessity of deciding whether we shall be slaves of unregulated progres and ultimately its artifacts or whether we shall remain free human beings to guide our technique towards the enhancement of human dignity. 12 Kass himself has strong views against cloning following his reading of a column about it by Joshua Lederberg in the Washington Post in September 1967, which he viewed as showing a lack of understanding on its implications. As a result, he was invited by the Princeton University theologian Paul Ramsey to discuss it and related ethical issues, and so becoming more involved with theologians and philosophers. 13 As a biochemist, like the members of the Christian Medical Fellowship in Britain, Kass is certainly very well aware of the science supporting such research. Nevertheless, in his view the only serious answer to the immense moral problems posed by cloning and related issues may be the complete abandonment of such research, despite the opportunities it offers for scientific advance. Kass has quoted his colleague, Paul Ramsey, on this issue, stating
‘Raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of the new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things that they refused to do.’ 14
My own view is that Anne Widdecombe is exactly right about human embryonic research, and particularly about the dubious morality of the creation of the human-animal hybrids to be used. As it appears that such stem cell research has produced few results, and because of the immense moral problems it presents, it should therefore be discontinued. Everyone wants cures to be found for disease, including, and perhaps particularly, such devasting illnesses as Alzheimers that gradually destroys the minds of its victims. However, some of these cures come at too high a cost morally, particularly when other areas of research, like adult and umbilical stem cells, offer much better prospects of results.
1. G. Kolata, Clone: The Road to Dolly the Sheep and the Path Ahead (London, Penguin 1997), p. 91.
2. Kolata, Clone, p. 95.
3. Kolate, Clone, p. 95.
4. H. Brennan, Death: The Great Mystery of Life (Bridgnorth, Eye Books 2005), pp. 120-1.
5. Brennan, Death, p. 128.
6. Dr. P. Dixon, The Genetic Revolution (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications 1993), pp. 179-180.
7. Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 180.
8. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, pp. 193-4.
9. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 195.
10. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 198.
11.’Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 199.
12. Kolata, Clone, p. 15.
13. Kolata, Clone, pp. 76-77.
14. Kolata, Clone, p. 15.