The British Parliament’s decision on May 19 to allow laboratories in Britain to create a new kind of embryo, part human and part animal, was hailed as a victory for science over religious (and specifically Catholic) doctrine. In reality, it was the victory of a newly fashionable secularist dogma—the notion that scientific inquiry should be unconstrained—over the far more reasonable idea that tampering with human life for medical purposes requires a compelling ethical justification. The Parliament, in other words, has declared science in Britain to be an ethics-free zone.
This was made clear during a panel discussion held on the eve of the vote on the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill . The case in favor was put by a professor of genetics at Newcastle University, John Burn, a pioneer of stem cell research in the same institute that in the mid-1990s brought Dolly, the cloned sheep, into the world. Instead of a passionate defense of how vital embryonic stem cells are to future cures of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, Professor Burn candidly admitted that most of the funding and resourcing at his Center for Life went into ethically incontrovertible adult stem cells, where all the therapeutic advances have so far been made.
Embryonic research, he said, was a small sideline, involving just 5 percent of its research grants and only two scientists. But he believed that embryonic stem cell research (legal in Britain since the original H.F.E. Act of 1990) should continue, because it could yet yield results; and because there was a shortage of human eggs available for cloning, he wanted to be able to take a cow’s egg and fuse it with human cells. The future of embryonic research, in other words, requires hybrids (half-animal, half-human) as well as cybrids (99 percent human, 1 percent animal). Embryonic research was justified because it gave scientists more information about the behavior of early stem cell development, not because it was expected to lead to cures. Professor Burn had no ethical problem with embryonic research and did not see why the Catholic Church—which, he claimed, had bizarre theories about 14-day-old embryos having souls—should be allowed to stop him.
Unlike the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who has adopted the hype of the medical research lobby that embryo experiments are vital to achieving “breakthroughs” using stem cell research, Professor Burn stuck to facts. But what was missing from his justification was any moral calculation; there was no weighing up of the benefits of the ends against the ethical quandaries of the means. Having opened the door, he just wanted to open it farther, and he failed to see why anyone should block it with dogma.
Although the British press tried to raise it, Galileo’s ghost was nowhere to be seen in this debate. In their mostly gentle statements (with the exception of Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh, who could not resist some Frankenstein metaphors), Catholic bishops have been careful to point out the benefits of stem cell research while reminding people that “scientific pragmatism is always counterbalanced with ethical considerations,” as the Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, put it. The ethical duty that society owes to human life requires a stringent scrutiny of claims of possible benefits, he said. “If not, then early human life will become unprotected ‘fair game’ for any use at all.”
The church, in other words, was proposing a reasoned examination of the ethics weighed against the anticipated benefits—while the medical research lobby has been resorting to an entirely unreasonable claim to be free of any such examination.
The government went further, claiming that the prospect of cures made the research an “inherently moral endeavor.” By focusing a skeptical public on the prospect of freedom from crippling diseases and by conflating the achievements in adult stem cell research with embryonic research, there was no need to deal with the ethical reservations. Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed quite untruthfully that scientists “are close to the breakthroughs that will allow embryonic stem cells to be used to treat a much wider range of conditions,” before adding, wildly, that medical researchers “argue that the safest way to maintain progress is to make use of animal eggs from which the animal genetic material is almost entirely removed.”
Yet the progress of adult stem cell research in no way depends on or has even benefited from embryonic stem cell research. As a number of leading stem cell scientists wrote in a letter to The Times of London, “such proposals are highly speculative in comparison to established sources of human stem cells and we remain unaware of any cogent evidence suggesting any might yield significant therapeutic dividend.” Ethical considerations aside, it would be far too dangerous: they are prone to forming tumors. Some months ago the highly regarded New England Journal of Medicine regretted that “the technical difficulties and ethical complexities” of using cloned human embryonic stem cells “were always likely to render it impractical.” As the neuroscientist Professor Neil Scolding wrote recently, “Few serious embryonic stem-cell scientists will speak in support of cybrid embryos specifically on the basis of their intrinsic potential for therapeutic research.”
The idea that there is no need to weigh ethical reservations about the use of human life against the anticipated benefits of research makes Britain’s neighbors nervous. In Germany, where creating chimeras (human-animal hybrids) is against the law, the German Medical Association said it showed that the British were “developing a completely different relationship to growing life.” Germany’s 20th-century experience of the commodification of human beings has sensitized its culture to the need for placing moral fences around scientific research. But in Britain, members of Parliament who had the same sensitivity were drowned out by the panegyrics to scientific freedom and the scornful dismissal of “religious” reservations. As Professor Burn told the panel, under the microscope 14-day-old human embryos “look just like semolina.”