Legionary Father Joseph Tham has strong credentials as an expert on bioethical issues: Before becoming a priest, he earned degrees in mathematical sciences and in medicine and worked for several years as a family physician.

Now a professor of bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, Father Tham spoke recently with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about Britain’s controversial decision last month authorizing the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for medical research.

What are the moral implications of allowing research into human-animal hybrid embryos?

First of all, this research that they are allowing to continue in Great Britain is about creating a type of hybrid embryo — it’s not a normal type of hybrid, but it’s what they call a “cytoplasmic hybrid” embryo or a “cybrid” embryo.

The process involves actually having an animal egg de-nucleated — the nucleus is taken out of this animal egg — and then having another nucleus of a human cell injected into this egg.

Thus, this so-called embryo will contain the human nucleus within an animal cytoplasm. So this is a very new type of procedure; we’re crossing a new barrier because now scientists are trying to create a creature and we don’t know what kind of creature it will become. It’s part animal — a very small part — and part human, genetically speaking.

Proponents of the science say hybrid embryos don’t have the same potential for life, and so the ethical and moral implications are lessened compared to human embryo research.

I think we’re dealing with a moral uncertainty here. Since we don’t know if these new creatures are going to be human or not, we don’t know if they have — according to classical terminology — a human soul or not. Since we are in doubt, we have to treat them as if they were human for the benefit of the doubt.

In that sense, it is different from creating a human embryo and getting stem cells from that, because we know most scientists will agree that that actually is a human embryo. But here we’re dealing with something else. According to the moral principle of tutiorism, we have to at least give it the benefit of the doubt that it might turn out to be a human embryo. So it should be treated with the dignity of a human being.

Proponents also claim the benefits of this research outweigh these moral dilemmas.

The benefit they are proposing, at least from what I’ve read, is that by using animal eggs instead of human eggs it would solve the problem of obtaining human eggs from women, because we know there are not that many surplus eggs available left from IVF treatments. So this is what they are saying. They would need a lot of eggs to carry out these kinds of experiments.

At the same time, we know (or at least what I’ve read in the literature says that) embryonic stem-cell research has not been able to yield any treatments. So what they’re saying is: We don’t exactly know what kind of advantage, what kind of results we are going to get from these kinds of research, but we might be able to discover some basic science knowledge by experimenting with hybrid embryos.

We don’t even know if this hybrid embryo is going to survive, or if the experiments are going to work at all.

In spite of so many uncertainties, what I find striking is the thinking that says we should be free to have almost 100% access to these kind of experiments, to do away with any limits because it “might” just yield some potential beneficial knowledge in the future.

So what would be the benefits of this research? Could it help cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as is claimed?

I’ve read some of the documents that they printed out on the webpage and they’re talking about basic science. They’re not talking about cures at all because they know that the possibility of cure from a hybrid embryo is not going to be applicable to human beings.

What they’re talking about is getting to know more how the embryo, or how the embryonic stem cell, works. If they have a lot of cells, they would be able to do more kinds of experiments with them, and so this is what they are claiming: that it would give them many more possibilities of research.

Did this news of Britain’s decision come as a shock to you?

This research has already been carried out in the U.S. and China and it received a lot of negative press and condemnation worldwide. Yes, I’m a little bit surprised that in England they were able to push this forward.

On the other hand, I’m not surprised because, knowing the way scientists work and their desire to push science to its very limits, they haven’t actually any qualms about ethical barriers. This is exactly what we’re seeing here, what some people would term “the research imperative”: “Anything that may be done, should be done.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.