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

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable