Archive for May 19th, 2008


May 19, 2008

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.


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.