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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick
 

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing