Over-egged?

As I sit here, the first day’s votes on the Human Embryo Bill currently before the UK parliament have happened, with the creation of hybrid embryos approved by a large majority.

A lot of scientists will have sighed with relief. However, to most scientists, the whole furore over hybrid embryos was a puzzle. Why such a fuss when “100% human” embryo research was already legal?

I have not written anything about the Bill hitherto. Partly, this is because it is a huge subject. Where to start? Where to stop? It has certainly been misreported. Even the people you would expect to report it accurately have been falling down.

For instance, as I was sitting here writing yesterday evening, the usually reliable Radio 4 told me that:

“Scientists want to harvest stem cells from these (hybrid) embryos to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s”

Aaargh! Why can’t these people get it right?

Every time this lazy line was repeated over the last few weeks more confusion was propagated across the airwaves.

The line should actually read:

“Scientists want to harvest stem cells from these (hybrid) embryos to work out better ways to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s”

- which is shorthand for:

Scientists want to harvest stem cells from these (hybrid) embryos to work out better ways to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

- The hybrid cells will allow the methods to be worked out in animal experiments but without having to use real human embryos to provide the stem cells. That way we will see sooner if stem cell therapy is practical, and under what circumstances, without needing to destroy lots of human embryos.”

The crucial distinction regarding what is actually going to be done with these hybrid embryos should have been in every story concerning the vote. But it has not been.

Scientists prefer data – Pro-Lifers prefer dogma

This has suited one group of people very well. This is the array of religious and “Pro-Life” groups opposing the Bill.

A central theme of the religious objections has been that the scientists are “doing something monstrous” in trying to create “human-animal hybrids”, that the scientists are “tampering with the very nature of life” or “tampering with the very nature of what makes us human”.

Note the term “human-animal hybrid”

A more accurate description would be “human animal hybrid ball of cells

The idea – which the Churches and Pro-Lifers have happily stirred up fear of – of some mad boffin taking the Bill as a green light to create a human with mutant hamster genes is utter science fiction.

In fact, what MPs have just voted for was only marginally different from what already occurred under the previously existing law.

So what was legal already?

To recap: under earlier British legislation, passed by John Major’s Conservative government in 1990, unused human embryos generated during IVF could be grown until they are 14 days old. They could also be used to make embryonic stem (ES) cells.

The crucial decision, then, to allow “leftover” human embryos to be used for research, though only under limited and legally-restricted conditions, was taken by parliament 17 years ago.

Looking back over those 17 years, the sky has not fallen in. Human clones are not among us, so I cannot pay to grow a replica Dr Aust in a tank to use for replacement parts.

Two weeks only

A word about the “14-day limit”. This time point was set as being the time when the very first signs appear in the ball of cells (called a “blastocyst”) of the structure (called the “primitive streak”) that will ultimately become the central nervous system.

The same rules apply to the hybrid embryos, as noted in the recent House of Commons debate on the 2nd reading of the bill by Conservative MP John Bercow:

“Is it not worth underlining that [hybrid] embryos will be subject to the same regulatory procedure that applies to embryos at present, namely the requirement for destruction at 14 days, or upon the emergence of the primitive streak? Therefore, the idea conjured up by some of the more lurid speculation in the tabloids that there will be some persistent ongoing consequence is nonsense.”

So why all the fuss?

The reason scientists have been so mystified by the denunciations of the current Bill from religious groups is that the hybrid embryo experiments were thought up precisely BECAUSE of the ethical objections religious groups continue to raise to the (legal) use of real human embryos created by IVF. The Pro-Life groups insistently refer to these embryos as “human lives”. Reasoning that there was no intrinsic need to use genuine human embryos for much of the research and proof-of-principle work, the scientists had a think and came up with a reasoned alternative – an animal egg loaded with “re-programmed” DNA from an adult human cell. The total amount of “animal” DNA in such a hybrid embryo is 37 out of 30-35,000 genes. This is because the only animal DNA comes from the egg’s mitochondria, which contribute 37 genes in all. The “0.1% animal”, or “99.9% human” figure, comes from this 37 out of 30-odd thousand figure.

So- you’d think the Pro-Lifers would have been happy. Far less need for human embryos. But no – instead, all we got was months of craziness about “Frankenstein hybrids” and “tampering with nature”.

The central fact that anything other than growing-a-ball-of-cells for 14 days-in-a-dish will still be ILLEGAL under the new law, just like under the old law, has not always been clear in much of the media coverage. It is pretty clear to me that the religious groups have done their best to obfuscate this deliberately, and that too much of the media coverage, especially early on, allowed them to get away with it.

Barking mad

To give a particularly emotive and mad example, back in January John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, spoke as follows:

“The decision [to allow creation of a hybrid embryo] represents a disastrous setback for human dignity in Britain

It is creating a category of beings regarded as sub-human who can be used as raw material to benefit other members of the human family, effectively creating a new class of slaves.”

Now personally I cannot work out how a 14-day ball of cells with no hint of a nervous system, or a stem cell derived from it, is anything like a “slave being”.

Obviously I do not live on the same planet as Mr Smeaton.

Contrast the statement by John Bercow MP. He, though he is not from the party I vote for, clearly inhabits a planet I recognize. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of a read through the Parliamentary debate on the second reading of the Bill was the way the debate transcended the political party affiliations of the MPs speaking.

Catholic and Evangelical Christian MPs opposed to it, root and branch. Everyone else pretty much for it, though to varying degrees.

Also for the bill, though outside parliament, were and are the scientists, including sundry Nobel Laureates and the Royal Society. And also for it are the patients with incurable diseases who might ultimately be helped, together with their families. And also for it are all the medical charities that do research into disease and cures, like the British Heart Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the Parkinson’s Disease Society etc. etc.

Oddly, the voices of these folk were heard rather less in the media, at least until the last couple of weeks, than the strident tones of the objectors spouting their soundbite inaccuracies. Initially –at least as I see it – far too much of the media coverage of the Bill, and of hybrid embryos, simply reported the doomsday utterances of Smeaton and other factually-challenged commentators like Nadine Dorries MP.

And the coverage…?

As time has gone on, the media coverage has become more accurate, though not accurate enough for my liking, see the start of this post. And the national media have not been paragons of accuracy. Indeed, some of the most succinct statements of the facts I found were in the Parliamentary debate last week, which is not often the case. It almost restored my sometimes wavering belief in the idea that the people in the House of Commons are really doing, and capable of doing, the job they are elected for.

There were some media stand-outs. The Guardian’s James Randerson has covered the issue well. And reality has poked its head up even in unexpected places, especially as the vote has neared. For instance, here is the Sheffield Star, managing to make the key point succinctly in a way that has mysteriously eluded many of London’s Finest Journalists.

”The Bill permits the creation of embryos containing human and animal material for studying diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The legislation would allow scientists to grow the embryos for up to 14 days.”

Note: 14 days. Grow.

Not: “Turn them into a hybrid being with mutant DNA and animal powers”.

“Slave sub-humans” – do they really believe this stuff?

Now, I find it difficult to believe even the more frothing Pro-Life groups could not tell the difference between “ball of cells for 14 days in a dish” and “slave sub-humans”.

So why have they been shouting so loudly about “scientists opening Pandora’s box?” and “invading the sanctity of human life”?

The answer, quite clearly, is that they saw an opportunity to re-fight the battles they lost in 1990, when the original Embryo bill was passed, and in other battles over things like abortion and cloning.

But… we’ve been here before

One of the more ironic aspects of all this, to my mind, has been the spectacle of the Catholic, Evangelical and Pro-Life lobbies casting themselves as “victims” and complaining that religious views are “marginalized” in contemporary Britain.

Hmmm.

For those that weren’t around back then, the 1990 Embryology Bill was, of course, passed only after an extended debate, both in Parliament and outside, in which the religious groups had a substantial voice. Their views on “the nature of human uniqueness”, and of “the point at which a human being is created”, and “when is a human soul created” all fed into the argument, and indeed led in large part to the compromise choice of the 14-day limit on embryo research. The point was that one could hardly talk of a “human consciousness” or “a human soul” being destroyed if the 14-day blastocyst did not even have the beginnings of a nervous system.

All the new law has done is to say that a hybrid embryo gets the same protection as a human embryo. As MP and doctor Evan Harris put it in the second reading debate:

“The reason why the Select Committee advocated including true hybrid [embryos] in the [legislative regime controlled by the] HFEA [that could] license their use if an appropriate application came forward was that there was no good reason not to. Once one accepts that it is legitimate to do destructive medical research on human embryos, there is no ethical reason to give greater protection to things that are not human embryos. It would be an inversion of everyone’s ethical compass to say that certain embryo entities require greater protection than a fully human embryo.”

Of course, consensus politics, and a search for compromise, does not please everyone. People whose religion “calls” them to an unchanging moral viewpoint will never give up trying to roll back the democratic consensus if that consensus – whether on legal abortion at 24 weeks, or on hybrid embryos – conflicts with their moral code. And they are very committed, and very vocal.

An inbuilt property – some might call it a snag – of democratic processes based on discussion is that the very vocal minority sometimes appear, by their very vocal-ness, to be more numerous than less-vocal majorities.

Which, some scientists would say, is why we need lobbyists, eminent scientists speaking out publically, Emails to MPs – I’ve sent mine – and demonstrations, and possibly even a blog or two.

And hopefully, elected representatives who can spot a silly argument. Tonight it looks like we may do. But tomorrow is another day.

14 Responses to “Over-egged?”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    Good analysis, Dr Aust. As you highlight, one of the substantial problems with the coverage has been the use of the phrase “hybrid embryos” – it conjurs up images of transgenics such as Joshua from Dark Angel or characters from The Island of Dr Moreau.

    One might have hoped that our elected representatives would have instructed their research staff to have conducted a thorough enough investigation that they had a more nuanced understanding but it is asinine soundbites that win camera time and column inches.

    Which, some scientists would say, is why we need lobbyists, eminent scientists speaking out publically, Emails to MPs – I’ve sent mine – and demonstrations, and possibly even a blog or two.

    Hm, are we wanting to carry on mumbling into our porridge (other breakfast foods are available) or needing to make a difference to the public discourse of science.

  2. latsot Says:

    Great post. It’s always interesting when local papers somehow manage to get an issue right when the nationals don’t. I suppose pandering to readership and not caring about the truth or who they hurt is the reason they are nationals in the first place.

    I’ve depressed myself now.

  3. kmann Says:

    Excellent piece.

  4. wilsontown Says:

    Thanks for this useful summary of what the bill is actually doing. It has been difficult to figure any of this out from the media coverage.

    Unfortunately, it turns out that my own MP, the Rt Hon Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, is on the side of the nutters. If I’d have known that, I’d have sent an e-mail myself. Not that it did much good the last time I wrote to him.

  5. Claire Says:

    “The decision [to allow creation of a hybrid embryo] represents a disastrous setback for human dignity in Britain…”

    Because, you know, degenerative diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinsons are just sooo dignity-enhancing, aren’t they, John Smeaton, you big eejit?

    Whenever I see this kind of scaremongering, I conclude that those involved cannot find any rational arguments to further their cause.

  6. jdc325 Says:

    A very clear, easy-to-understand debunking of the myths being propagated by idiot politicians via the media. Brilliant Dr Aust – I take my hat off to you.

  7. Kat Says:

    Absolutely right, Claire. Funny how “pro-life” never bothers much with pro-quality-of-life. I wonder if they ever meet the families or patients with not just late-onset neurodegenerative diseases, but the infantile onset ones, where the children are severly neurologically impaired from birth, never walk, talk, see or hear and only survive for a few years. It’s hard to see where the human dignity is in those cases.

  8. PJ Says:

    I’ve been shouting at the TV/radio about this stuff too. How hard can it be to follow it? The claim that hybrid embryos are going to be used for treatment and the ideas that these embryos will be grown into scary human-animal sub-humans or that ‘saviour siblings’ will be kept in big warehouses and harvested for their organs seem to be the most widespread. John Snow talking to some MP last night on Channel 4 News highlighted this nicely by ploughing through with follow-up questions about ‘saviour siblings’, full of ‘aah, but…’ sneering, when the guy was blatently taling about hypdrid embryos. It made you think they have a very limited grasp of the subject matter.

    I am very impressed that the pro-lifers have managed to frame the whole abortion debate in terms of viability when their true motivations are transparently inconsistent with this view. You’d think journalists would call them on it. Dorries appears to be the shock trooper, ahead of the main body firing her barely credible scatter-gun arguments to take out the easy targets before the big guns follow up behind to address the grown-ups.

    As I noted last October, it looks like the anti-abortionists have chosen the best tactic to convince a fairly credulous public, media, and political class. If viability is the issue, why aren’t the anti-abortionists pressing to make earlier abortions (where viability is not an issue) easier to obtain? Oh yeah, because they think all abortion is murder because little clumps of cells have souls. I forgot.

    That probably explains why they are so keen on the viability of foetuses at 22 weeks where pretty much 100% of those that survive end up profoundly and multiply disabled – a level of disability that, interestingly, if you could predict it, you’d probably be allowed to abort that foetus after 24 weeks. Consistency not our strong suite in the UK.

  9. vitaminbook Says:

    The comment about the ‘slaves’ is priceless. You’d think his own group would stop him from speaking if he’s going to make goofs like that.

  10. Sili Says:

    So- you’d think the Pro-Lifers would have been happy.

    No.

    The anti-abortionists* will never be happy. Ever.

    I made the mistake of trying to tune into the debate when I noticed Goldacre’d miniblogged the link – managed to first hit Dorries and then Widdecombe. Too shrill for me to handle.

    I’m very happy reason prevailed in the end. And with this result in, I think I need to figure out who ‘my MP’ is (less easy with proportional representation) and hear what they’ll vote when the abortion limit comes up for discussion again. It was about a year ago, I think, and was kept at twelve weeks then, though.

    Oh! And Evan Harris for PM!

    *’pro-life’, my arse

  11. Woobegone Says:

    “The claim that hybrid embryos are going to be used for treatment and the ideas that these embryos will be grown into scary human-animal sub-humans or that ’saviour siblings’ will be kept in big warehouses and harvested for their organs seem to be the most widespread.”

    This science-fiction nonsense has to taken seriously however, because it’s the entire driving force behind the opposition to these technologies. The actual process of making a “hybrid” embryo is pretty unimpressive when it comes down to it – it’s only really of direct interest to a minority of molecular biologists. The average man in the street (or in the Commons) doesn’t understand the technology, and couldn’t tell a hybrid embryo from a bacterial colony.

    But what they do understand is the idea of half-man half-chimps walking around, or someone cloning Hitler, or creating babies purely to harvest their organs before putting them into a deep freeze. I’ve come to think that this kind of thing is the sole reason that most people care about biotechnology at all – which is a little depressing.

  12. draust Says:

    Thanks all for the appreciative comments. And apologies for not responding earlier – was feeling a bit blogged out!

    DVNutrix – I hadn’t thought of Dr Moreau, but it is a good comparison, since the novel was very clearly inspired by the anti-vivisection panic of the late 19th century, itself whipped up by pamphleteers and lurid press coverage of the activities of the early UK medical school physiologists. As Wikipedia points out, the rather fevered atmosphere of the time gave birth to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Of course, it also produced the Physiological Society (founded very specifically to promote bioscience and to counter the anti-vivisectionists) and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 that regulated animal experimentation. Though the Wikipedia entry on the book does not mention it, the character of Dr Moreau is widely understood to have been inspired by the great French scientist Claude Bernard.

    Claire – think your description of the man from the SPUC as merely an “eejit” shows masterly restraint. “Loony” springs to mind, or that pungent Aussie expression “f*ckwit”. If I was a Latino I would call him a pendejo. As Vitaminbook says, it is in one sense amazing his own side let him spout such tripe, from which the only conclusion I can draw is that the rest of the SPUC are as barking as him – if you read their website you might well get that idea.

    Personally I would say that no-one whose views are that fantastically ludicrous should get any media platform, as they are clearly a fringe loon. It is akin to saying:

    “Welcome to our serious discussion on the weaknesses of the British two-party political system – our first speaker is the man from the Monster Raving Loony Party.”

    Wilsontown – was sorry to see “Creepy” Kaufman voting with the pro-life gang. Though I was slightly surprised to see he was still an MP! He must surely be standing down at the next general election. He was my MP for several years a while back, and one I voted for, though never with tremendous enthusiasm. In the constituency I now live in both the former Labour MP and the current LibDem one have been pretty good about replying to letters and emails. I am oddly proud of the letter I got from the ex-Labour MP, on the posh House of Commons stationery, after I wrote to tell him I couldn’t vote for a party that was dumping eight centuries of civil liberties to impose detention without trial for terror suspects.

    Kat and Claire – completely agree about the dreadful consequences of degenerative diseases, especially in the young. A lot of scientists would argue we have a moral imperative to do things like stem cell research specifically to attempt to help such people. The treatments may be a long way off, but that’s no reason to say “Oh, we won’t bother to try and work out how to do it, then”.

    This argument used to turn up in the animal experimentation debate as well. There was an organisation, now sadly defunct as far as I know, called SIMR (Seriously Ill for Medical Research) which specifically used to campaign in opposition to the anti-viv groups. The point of SIMR was to point out that there are plenty of serious life-threatening diseases for which we have no good treatments, and that advances in medical science are pretty much the only hope for people like SIMR’s member, and for future sufferers.

    The Guardian ran a good piece along these lines written by a lady from the Parkinsons’s society, but I’m too tired to hunt it down. The Guardian is running so many CiF pieces at the moment that the good ones simply get swamped amid a mass of pontificating journalists.

    Sili – I have always regarded the twelve-week limits for abortion in Europe as a red herring in the UK context, for various reasons. First, in many countries it mainly reflects the much larger influence of the Roman Catholic Church (compared to the UK), rather than a different consensus on the medical science. Second, I doubt people have to wait ages simply through the lack of speed of the medical system, which is a problem in the UK. Third, in most countries abortions for “medical reasons” will be exempt from this twelve-week limit, and there will not be anti-abortion groups trying to peer over doctors’ and patients’ shoulder to see what exactly they list as a medical reason. Fourth, I would bet that if you have the money the prohibition on abortion after twelve weeks can be circumvented easily, simply by finding the “right” doctors. So I suspect that in practise abortions happen after twelve weeks, but they simply don’t create the fuss we get in the UK.

    For whatever reason, the British debate on things like abortion takes rather little notice of the European experience. It is also notable that I didn’t hear anyone in the very premature babies discussion mention the Dutch policy on very premature births. In Holland, at least until recently, doctors were forbidden to treat any infant born prior to 26 weeks, as the argument was that if the child survived they would be so disabled that it amounted to a kind of cruelty.

    PJ – thanks for the link to your excellent post from back in the Autumn. You were way ahead on all this – eerily prescient, indeed. The way that the pro-lifers have managed to front and centre the tiny, tiny number of “miracle babies”, to the almost complete exclusion of what the neonatal docs say about the dire prospects overall for the pre-24 weekers, is very depressing. And given that the ones reported are usually only the ones that are sufficiently active / big / advanced to get admitted to the NICU as having any kind of a chance…

    Another thing that always strikes me, and that never seemed to get discussed, is the imprecise nature of the gestational assessment, which you wrote about in your post. In Prof John Wyatt’s study, the one Nadine Dorries thinks trumps all the other data, the dating – at least as I read it – is from the mother’s last period, hardly terribly very precise. It makes me wonder if his tiny number of “22 week survivors” – and it’s only half a dozen – are all really 23 or 23-and-a-half-weekers.

    On the whole stem cells / cloning debate, I agree with Woebegone that public knowledge about all this is pretty dismal – for which I am tempted to blame the journalists, though the poor general level of scientific education is equally culpable. But where is the accurate info to come from? I wouldn’t mind so much if everybody watched The Boys from Brazil, which, although it is now thirty years old, remains one of the more scientifically accurate movies about cloning – mainly because it recognises both heredity AND environment as contributing to phenotype.

  13. Pro-reality activism soundbite – from the desk « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

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