David Alton’s Universe Column on the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research – March 2002


Last week, the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research, chaired by the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, gave the go ahead to experiments on cloned human embryos and ‘spare’ embryos left over from IVF procedures.

Its conclusions came as little surprise to those of us who questioned the wisdom of appointing a retrospective Select Committee to look into cloning and stem cell research after Parliament had approved hastily prepared and ill-conceived Regulations authorising such research. There is little point in wasting months of parliamentary time going through the motions of an inquiry when the conclusion was fixed at the outset. The process only adds to the general contempt in which Parliament is held.

No one who spoke in Parliament against the use of human embryos in destructive research was appointed to this one sided inquiry. The Committee’s chairman, the Bishop of Oxford, had spoken publicly in favour of embryo experimentation and so-called therapeutic cloning, and as a leader in the Anglican Church, helped to clothe the Committee with the cloak of ethical respectability. Although the Committee did receive oral evidence from scientists working on adult stem cells, such scientists either represented bodies that supported ‘therapeutic’ cloning or had declared their personal support. No scientists devoted exclusively to research on adult stem cells and opposed to embryo experimentation were invited to submit oral evidence. This makes a mockery of the Committee’s claim to have given more attention to recent developments in adult stem cell research than to any other. Furthermore, the “impartial” scientific advisor to the Committee who guided them in their deliberations is himself leading pro-cloning protonist and practitioner and a professional colleague of one of the leading proponents of destructive embryo experimentation, Lord Robert Winston.

The Daily Telegraph concluded that the Committee has left itself open to the charge that it “did not approach this issue with a genuinely open mind” and the London Evening Standard lamented its failure to explore “all the alternatives before proceeding with this emotive ethical precedent”. The general feeling of contempt and cynicism about this whole risible process is inescapable.

Yet the Committee’s report exposes the inflated claims of the Government and its pro-cloning allies. It acknowledges that over the next few years most studies on embryonic stem cells will involve “basic research” which “will not in itself be therapeutic”. According to the Committee it could be anything from five to twenty five years before we see the introduction of effective stem cell based therapies. The ‘hit and miss’ nature of this “basic research” will involve the manufacture, cannibalisation and destruction of human embryos. This hardly demonstrates the “respect” for the human embryo which the Committee is so keen to convince us it wishes to promote, particularly when adult stem cells are demonstrating their superiority in providing effective stem cell based therapies. Why else would 3 out of every 4 dollars of private investment in the USA be going into adult stem cell research and technology?

The chronology of the Committee’s report is seriously askew. After concluding that destructive research using cloned human embryos and ‘spare’ IVF embryos should be allowed to proceed, we are then lectured on the ethical status of the human embryo. Notwithstanding the inadequacy of the Committee’s analysis, this back to front approach is analogous to giving a person the authorisation to steal a car and then lecturing him on the ethics of theft. It only reinforces the feeling that the Committee’s conclusions were fixed from the outset and that tricky questions of ethics would not be allowed to frustrate matters.

Finally, perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this whole affair is the considerable damage caused to ecumenical relations. Observing the press conference at which the Committee’s report was published, one would have been forgiven for concluding that the report was a Church of England document. There you had the Bishop of Oxford addressing the media, accompanied by his press secretary, also a cleric. If, as the Financial Times and other newspapers have reported, it is true that “mainstream Church of England opinion supports human embryo and cloning research”, then a vast gulf will have opened up between it and the Catholic Church. Alternatively, if this is not true then, as Christians, we have much to do to convince our society to uphold the sanctity of human life.

Either way, as Catholics we must continue to demonstrate that the pursuit of scientific excellence does not have to involve the destruction of early human life.