Ignorance and ethical obscurantism must not hold up medical research

Share
Related Topics

There will, inevitably, be pressure on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to reject the application it is now considering from Newcastle University to clone Europe's first human embryo

There will, inevitably, be pressure on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to reject the application it is now considering from Newcastle University to clone Europe's first human embryo. It is not that the researchers are planning on taking cloning to the conclusion of producing a human baby. But even their plan to use cloning to find a cure for diabetes will find vocal opposition from some anti-abortion campaigners.

Such opposition should be resisted. It is true that the researchers plan to use the same technique that was used to create Dolly the cloned sheep. But to couch the debate in such terms is to pre-judge it. For what they intend to do is remove the nucleus from a human egg left over from IVF treatment and then insert into that cell the DNA from a diabetes sufferer from which the diabetes gene has been removed. The stem cells which will result can then, they hope, be injected into a juvenile diabetes sufferer, without the risk of the child's body rejecting them. Life-long cures for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and other scourges may one day be uncovered by the same process.

The key point here is that the embryos from which the stem cells are extracted will be destroyed before they are 14 days old and never allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead. When the manipulation of human embryos became a scientific possibility in this country in the 1970s the Government set up the Warnock committee to set parameters for embryo research. It concluded that the boundary should be fixed at the day before the point when the "primitive streak" emerges which becomes the human spinal cord and nervous system. Until that point the embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into any human cell. After that they develop differentiated special functions. It is a working definition which most people in this country accept and one on which Parliament has relied in all subsequent legislation.

This definition underlies the distinction made by an amendment to the Human Embryology Act which allowed cloning human embryos for therapeutic purposes - but not for reproductive purposes - in January 2001. The Newcastle University application now before the HFEA is merely the practical outworking of that Act. So long as the research is to be carried out within the approved guidelines, and has a good chance of success, there is absolutely no reason why the HFEA should not approve it.

Critics have objected that the research proposal will cross a new ethical boundary. Creating an embryo specifically for this purpose, as distinct from using one already fertilised for IVF purposes, does raise new questions about instrumentality - the embryo becomes a mere tool, rather than something that exists in its own right. This is a difficulty which needs to be acknowledged. But human life is not the same as a human being. Though embryos are to be respected, they do not have the same moral status as human beings. Other ethical considerations than respect for the embryo are relevant here. Discovering treatment for children and adults who suffer from terrible diseases is a moral issue, too. And respect for a potential future person has to be balanced against a greater respect for the needs of those who are alive now.

This science is at an early stage. We do not yet know how to control the way embryonic stem cells develop into different cell types. We do not understand their tendency to form tumours when transplanted. We do not know why the cloning process often leads to abnormal cell behaviour. All this needs research. But the British authorities have a good track record of carefully regulating such work. It is important that we have confidence in allowing them to continue to do so - and do not allow ethical obscurantism or ignorance to impede the work of scientists trying to find cures for some of the worst diseases that afflict our children.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Software Developer with SQL and .Net skills

£27000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable and dynamic softw...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Israeli soldiers ride atop a tank outside the southern Gaza Strip.  

War is war: Why I stand with Israel

Tom Doran
 

Spy chief speaks on the record: "Thank you, and that's it, really"

John Rentoul
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice