To the Guild of Catholic Doctors Great Britain, May 2001
An Italian scientist recently announced his intention to press on with full human reproductive cloning. He said that any doubts he might have had about the ethics or desirability of doing this had been allayed by the decision in of the British Parliament to permit therapeutic cloning. When the debate took place in the British Parliament in January 2001 many warned that therapeutic cloning would be the bridge across which full reproductive cloning would inevitably march; and so it has. If anything, the ethical and public safety arguments against therapeutic cloning are even more convincing than the arguments against reproductive cloning. Yet in its desire to appease the pharmaceutical and bio-tec industry, Mr.Blair’s Government have thrown prudence and caution to the wind. They have done so with utter disregard for international opinion. Hubert Hueppe, the Deputy Chairman of the Reichstag Ethics Committee, said it was cannibalistic to breed a human being, only to kill it, disembowel it and impregnate something with it. President Chirac has condemned the British decision. President Bush has withdrawn federal funding and the European Parliament has voted against all forms of human cloning. Daniel Tarchys, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, put it well when he said:
At a time when occasional voices are being raised to assert the acceptability of human cloning and even to put it more rapidly into practice, it is important for Europe solemnly to declare its determination to defend human dignity against the abuse of scientific techniques. The arguments for cloning have been driven by powerful vested interests. In the year 2000 biotechnology stocks performed better than their dotcom counterparts on the major world stock exchanges. During those twelve months alone the Intersuisse biotechnology index rose by 30%. Mr.Blair says the European bio-tec industry will be worth over $100 billion by 2005 and the day after the British Parliament gave the green light for therapeutic cloning the leading commercial player was rewarded with a substantial jump in share value. The British Government have tried to allay public opinion by belatedly doing two things. First, they say they will now outlaw reproductive cloning and introduce primary legislation. Second, a House of Lords Select Committee has been established to examine the issues raised by the use of stem cells from human embryos. That Committee does not include a single member who spoke against the proposals and it is chaired by a cleric who had previously voiced his support for therapeutic cloning. It brings to mind G.K.Chesterton’s observation about such committees:
A Parliamentary Commission was appointed and reported that everything was very nice; a Minority Report was issued which reported that some things were not quite so nice; and political life (if you can call it life) went on as before. (Autobiography: The Case Against Corruption). Ontologically, of course, there is no difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Both involve the manufacture of human embryos. If anything, in its consequences, therapeutic cloning is even more ethically and scientifically unacceptable than reproductive cloning. The cloned embryo will be used as a donor without its consent; it will be manipulated, plundered and then destroyed. There may also be many unforeseen dangers and safety issues. Just six weeks after the decision of the British Parliament, The Guardian newspaper, in a front page story, reported that Parkinson’s miracle cure turns into a catastrophe. They reported that American patients who had been treated with foetal cells have developed worse conditions than the disease and that the treatments are irreversible. Unlike the new British laws to ban fox hunting, which have warranted an entire Act of Parliament, the cloning regulations were not brought forward in primary legislation. They are regulations made under the 1991 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which allowed experiments on the human embryo for the first two week of life. It is worth mentioning that since then half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon in British laboratories but no cures have been forthcoming. Under section 19 of the Human Rights Act of 1998, the Government are now required to print a compatibility statement on the face of a British Bill stating that there is no conflict with European law. If we had been debating a Bill rather than an Order the Government would not have been able to do that – certainly not if they are serious about our intention to sign the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, and which prohibits the use of embryonic stem cells. Of course, Orders of this kind also dispense with the dreary business of detailed scrutiny, transparency, and proper parliamentary opposition. But it will do nothing to convince an already cynical public.
In a landmark report to the House of Lords, the Science and Technology Committee stated that after the effects of BSE on public confidence in agriculture and science and after the saga of genetics crops, science is facing an emerging crisis of confidence in Britain. They said: many are deeply uneasy about the huge opportunities presented by areas of science including biotechnology and information technology, which seem to be advancing far ahead of their awareness and assent. In turn, public unease, mistrust and outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists themselves….Science’s relationship with United Kingdom society is under strain. It is hard to see how the decision to clone human embryos for therapeutic purposes will lessen that strain or mistrust. Nor does the decision end there. Throughout the world civilised countries have banned techniques which allow germ line gene therapy – that is, the manipulation of future generations. Our decision in January last will permit this and will further isolate us from world opinion and practice. In treatments for rare mitochondrial diseases, where disease originates from the cytoplasm of egg cells rather than the nucleus, it is proposed that a mother’s nucleus may be substituted before fertilisation and implantation into a donor’s egg. This has been characterised as the two-mother, one father treatment. The Donaldson Report, which paved the way for the Government’s proposals says at paragraph 23:
Given the genetic makeup of any child born as a result of this technique, it would not constitute reproductive cloning. The resulting child would not be genetically identical to anyone else. Nonetheless, concerns have been expressed that oocyte nucleus transfer represents a modification to the human genome which can be passed to the next generation. So cloning is being accompanied by germ line gene therapy. It was clearly wrong for British Ministers to state, as they did that the regulations do not raise any new moral issues beyond those that have already been debated and discussed in passing the current law. Parliament was bamboozled by audacious promises of cures and by the emotional blackmail that anyone who voted against their regulations was in favour of suffering and pain. That is not only an offensive argument it is scientifically illiterate. Professor Neil Scolding, of Bristol French Hey, says that it is simply not accurate to say that embryonic stem cells have an immediate therapy potential. It is a significant exaggeration of the true position He points to new developments, stating that evidence shows that there is an alternative. He says that there are two fallacies, one that cures from embryonic stem cells are imminent and the other that adult stem cells are unlikely to be as effective. Dr.Philip Jones, a scientist working at Oxford University on stem cell research for the past decade, says that adult stem cells offer far greater potential for cures than embryonic stem cells. He adds: because these cells come from the patient’s own body there would be no problem with immune rejection. Dr.Michael Antoniou, Head of the Nuclear Biology Group at London’s Guys Hospital argues that adult stem cells have as much if not more therapeutic potential than those derived from embryos.
It is often said that in some therapies only embryonic cells may be used. Dr.Antoniou told me that nothing had been achieved to date with embryonic stem cells that hasn’t also been achieved with adult stem cells and that adult bone marrow derived cells can contribute to all neural cell types in animal model studies. He added: Adult stem cells do not suffer from potential complications such as tumour formation and that therapeutic cloning techniques will be time consuming, labour intensive and expensive. In January The Times newspaper published an account of a patented discovery by a British-based researcher, Dr.Ilham Abuljadayel, claiming to have created a process which creates endless supplies of stem cells from adult stem cells, simply by using a donor’s blood. This will also tranform the argument. You do not have to believe in the sanctity of human life, or that life begins at fertilisation although I do – to be concerned about the general trend towards the commodification of life. In every generation we are tempted by the seductive and tantalising prospect of universal happiness as a trump over every other value or principle. But human dignity must always be defended against the abuse of scientific techniques. Even the Donaldson Committee admitted as much:
Although these embryos differ in the method of their creation, they are undoubtedly human embryonic life, which, given the right conditions, could develop into a human being. The commodified view treats a human embryo as just another accessory, to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed. When Parliament was told that the pre 14 day old embryo had the power – to use their word – to facilitate cures to mankind’s human misery, it simply underlined for me that even at this early stage of development we are not dealing here with something inconsequetial. There is nothing therapeutic in this procedure for this new human embryo. Once it has been used the human embryo will simply be destroyed. Dr.John Wyatt, Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at London’s Royal Free Hospital, reminds us not to confuse killing and curing:
I and many of my fellow health professionals have a profound disquiet about the introduction of therapeutic cloning. Many of us are actively involved in research to find novel therapies for life threatening, disabling conditions. However, the creation and manipulation of living human embryos for the sole purpose of generating therapeutic tissue seems incompatible with respect for vulnerable human life. The redefinition of human embryos as mere biological material, as totipotent stem cells in order to allay public concerns, smacks of semantic trickery rather than responsible debate. Professor Wyatt’s is not an isolated voice. When the 12-member European Group on Ethics and Science and New Technologies, chaired by the French High Court judge, Noelle Lenoir, reported to Ministers at the end of last year, it recognised that there are unanswered questions, scientific and ethical, but recommended prudence and a precautionary approach, concluding that at present the creation of embryos for somatic cell transfer would be premature.
President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Committee said that because of ethical and moral concerns raised by the use of embryos for research purposes it would be far more desirable to explore the direct use of human cells of adult origin to produce specialised cells or tissue for transplantation into patients. Yet, the British decision will make it harder for those opposed to these techniques to ensure a united front. A country like North Korea is a pariah state more easily isolated than a country like Britain. The core of the argument is that human dignity must be defended against the abuse of scientific techniques; that the creation of human embryos specifically for experimentation and research, then to destroy them, is unconscionable; that therapeutic cloning inevitably and inexorably paves the way for reproductive cloning; and that here is the bright line that we simply should not cross.
In cloning we are creating for the first time an entity which is asexual, with no gametes and no parents. We are asked to set aside powerful appeals for prudence and for caution; to ignore the scientific alternatives open to us, and to act outside of international agreement in order to give the edge to huge bio-tec interests based in one country. I hope that political leaders world-wide will wake up to the enormity of what Britain has done.