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Bovine Frankenstein: UK and the Controversial Bioethics Law

Genetically Engineered Cow

Lest anyone is tempted to think that the debate over hybrid embryo creation is premature, the troubling announcement on April Fools Day (4/1) that a research team at Newcastle University in England had successfully created the first part-human part-animal hybrid embryo (cow egg, human somatic cell nucleus) in the UK will make clear how late in the day the time actually is.  The embryo survived for three days.  Parliament will debate next month the morality and utility of socially sanctioning the creation of such embryos.

 

A controversial new bioethics law has been causing quite a stir in the UK in the past few months.  Up until now, issues pertaining to the creation of embryos and assisted reproduction have fallen under the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology (HFE) Act, which mandated among other things the creation of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) as a regulatory agency.  In November 2007, a new bill aimed at amending the 1990 HFE Act was introduced in the House of Lords.  The bill contains three particularly controversial provisions: 1) it permits the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos (“admixed” in British terminology) using human DNA and animal eggs; however it prohibits letting them live beyond 14 days and implanting them in the uterus of a human or animal; 2) it permits parents to create “savior siblings” using IVF by genetically screening for embryos that promise to be optimal organ donors or bone marrow donors for an existing sibling suffering from a rare disease; 3) it abrogates a current law requiring fathers to be included in all applications for IVF at fertility clinics; clinics would now be prohibited from denying IVF treatments to single women or lesbians who wish to get pregnant; the current ‘need for a father’ provision will be replaced by the ‘need for supportive parenting.’

In Nov 2007, a letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (Archbishop of Westminster and current president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales) was published in The Times (London) mentioning the three controversial provisions and urging a free vote on the bill as a whole in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons in accord with members’ consciences.  The plea was ignored.  The bill went on to pass the House of Lords in February 2008 and was introduced in the same month in the House of Commons.  Later in February Murphy-O’Connor sent a pastoral message to parishes in England and Wales raising concerns about the HFE bill, urging people to make their voices heard and to push for a free vote “on those parts of this Bill which deal with fundamental issues of personal conscience.”

Pleas for the same were multiplied around Easter as several high ranking bishops used their holiday pulpits to address the issues.  On March 21st (Good Friday) the text of an upcoming Easter sermon by Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, highly critical of the bill, was made available to the press.  This riled defenders of the bill, such as Dr. Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College London, who was quoted by the BBC (on 3/21) as saying, “This is yet another example where it is clear that the Catholic Church is misrepresenting science because it doesn’t understand the basic facts.”  On Holy Saturday (22nd), Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor renewed his call for a free vote according to conscience and his message was echoed by the Archbishop of Cardiff (Wales), Peter Smith, who in a letter to Gordon Brown, urged the PM to allow MPs to vote with their consciences.  In his Easter Vigil homily, Patrick O’Donoghue, Bishop of Lancaster, spoke out against the Bill, as did Patrick Kelly, Archbishop of Liverpool.  The strongest holiday admonition came from Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien in his Easter homily at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.  He described the proposed legislation as a “monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life”, saying it would allow experiments of “Frankenstein proportion.”  This infuriated Catholic Labor MP, Jim Devine, who said the Cardinal’s language was “completely unacceptable.”  On Easter Monday (3/24), the Financialtimes.com wrote:  “The prime minister faced the threat of a fresh revolt by Labor MPs on [Easter] Sunday, as the government signaled it might be forced to compromise.”

By this time the PM’s troubles had indeed escalated.  Three Catholic members of Gordon Brown’s cabinet were threatening revolt.  Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, Defense Secretary Des Browne and Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly all expressed strong concerns at a forced vote for all Labor party MPs.  Talk of resignations was widespread.  Stephen Byers, former Trade and Industry Secretary (and thus a former cabinet minister), not a Catholic, joined the calls to hold a free vote.  Byers said he did not want to be instructed on how to vote in matters of such importance.

Finally, on Easter Tuesday, March 25, PM Gordon Brown decided to relent and allow Labor lawmakers a free vote on the bill.  But the freedom he offered did not extend to the entire bill, but only to the three controversial provisions.  When it came to supporting the final bill, Brown demanded party conformity.  Any MP who failed to support the Bill would be expected to resign.  In response, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and Archbishop Peter Smith released a letter saying, “We welcome this afternoon’s announcement from the prime minister who, having carefully considered the representations made to him by many people, has decided that there will be a free vote on three key areas of the HFE Bill.  The free vote will be welcomed by people of all faiths or none who are concerned about the implications of this Bill that go to the heart of what it means to be human.”

The PM’s decision has been underwritten by public opinion.  The results of several recent polls have shown that a majority in the UK oppose the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos.  A poll released on Thursday, April 3rd, showed that over two thirds of the UK population was opposed.  Welcoming the news, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who’s been leading the UK opposition to the Bill, said in a press release:

I am delighted to see that the overwhelming majority of people, like me, are completely opposed to the creation of animal-human hybrids. I sincerely hope that Gordon Brown and all our MPs will take notice of this result and reconsider the need for this legislation. It is also heartening to see that the vast majority of people across the UK firmly believe that when a woman receives IVF treatment the clinic involved should know that the child¹s genetic father is identified.

In a polemical charge directed at the Prime Minister, the Cardinal strongly rejected the claim that hybrid embryos promise direct therapeutic benefit:

Recently, Gordon Brown said about animal-human hybrid research, that “lives will be saved” and “treatments and cures will be available”.  Such statements are not only complete scientific fantasy but are blatantly untrue.  They presents nothing more than a cruel deception to the thousands of families caring for an ill relative who may benefit from stem cell therapies.  The Prime Minister obviously isn’t aware of the recent statement by an expert molecular biologist (Dr. David King), who said; “there is abundant evidence that even if stem cells are obtained (from hybrid embryos) they will be so abnormal as to be useless”.
Lest anyone is tempted to think that the debate over hybrid embryo creation is premature, the troubling announcement on April Fools Day (4/1) that a research team at Newcastle University in England had successfully created the first part-human part-animal hybrid embryo (cow egg, human somatic cell nucleus) in the UK will make clear how late in the day the time actually is.  The embryo survived for three days.  Parliament will debate next month the morality and utility of socially sanctioning the creation of such embryos.  The ghost of Mary Shelly is shaking its head.

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