British authorities have ruled that research using animal eggs to create human stem cells could go forward in principle.
LONDON — Even the “yuck factor” wasn’t enough to prevent British authorities from authorizing a new form of morally problematic cloning research.
It was a decision that drew international condemnation from pro-life advocates.
The U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted approval in principle Sept. 5 to the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos.
They are called chimeras, and they are created using unfertilized eggs obtained from cows and other animals.
The Vatican immediately denounced the move. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said Sept. 6 that the decision is “a monstrous act against human dignity.”
“The British government has given in to the requests of a group of scientists absolutely against morality,” Bishop Sgreccia told the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority’s decision applies to research using the same technique of “somatic nuclear cell transfer” that is utilized to create human clones using human eggs obtained from women.
In both cases, scientists remove the nucleus of an unfertilized egg and replace it with the nuclear material obtained from a human cell, such as a skin cell. The egg is then stimulated electrically to begin dividing and developing into an embryo.
In its Sept. 5 announcement, the embryology center stipulated that the human-animal hybrid research must meet its existing standards for embryo research, which mandate that cloned embryos must be killed within 14 days of their creation.
Since 2001, Britain has allowed so-called “therapeutic” cloning while banning “reproductive” cloning that could result in the birth of a cloned human being.
According to Dr. Stephen Minger, director of stem-cell research at King’s College, London, and head of one of the two research teams who have applied for the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority’s approval to create hybrid embryos, such embryos are genetically human because their nuclear material is exclusively human.
As a consequence, Minger said, the embryos can provide an abundant supply of human embryonic stem cells for research.
This development could lead to treatment breakthroughs for incurable diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Embryonic stem-cell research has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Adult stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
The Church teaches that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
Minger said that the main reason for using animal eggs, rather than human ones, for somatic nuclear cell transfer experiments is that an almost unlimited supply of eggs can be obtained from the slaughter of domestic animals for the food industry.
The supply of human eggs donated by women of child-bearing age is far more limited and obtaining eggs involves risks to the donors.
“I have to be very honest and say I didn’t anticipate the kind of controversy that this has generated,” Minger said. “I thought what we were doing was very practical and ethically more justified than saying we were only going to use human eggs.”
In its 1997 document “Reflections on Cloning,” the Pontifical Council for Life rejected arguments that it is moral to create cloned embryos and kill them for research.
“A prohibition of cloning that would be limited to preventing the birth of a cloned child, but that would still permit the cloning of an embryo-fetus, would involve experimentation on embryos and fetuses and would require their suppression before birth — a cruel, exploitative way of treating human beings,” the Vatican document stated. “It is immoral because even in the case of a clone, we are in the presence of a ‘man,’ although in the embryonic stage.”
Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said the research approved by Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority is only “a slight variation” of cloning techniques that the Church has already declared to be gravely immoral.
And along with possessing the same moral problems as all forms of human cloning, human-animal hybrid research creates new ethical problems because of the unknown consequences of mixing different species, Father Pacholczyk said.
He pointed out that while the hybrid clones would have only human genes in their nuclei, they would retain a small amount of animal genetic material in cell structures known as mitochondria.
“Not only are you ultimately going to destroy any young human beings who are generated to get their stem cells, but when you make them you are subjecting them to all these unknown risks,” said Father Pacholczyk, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and conducted post-doctoral medical research at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. “Because you are mixing on a species level, you are playing even more freely with the human patrimony and violating that patrimony in a very fundamental way.”
In a statement explaining its decision to approve some forms of hybrid embryo research, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority said, “This is not a total green light for cytoplasmic hybrid research, but recognition that this area of research can, with caution and careful scrutiny, be permitted.”
Anthony Ozimic, for Britain’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the belief that touchy moral issues can be addressed through government regulation is widespread in the U.K.
“Moral questions in the United States are dealt with at the fundamental level of principles, of rights and responsibilities and dignity, whereas in Britain it’s not so much regarding principles as regards regulation,” he said. “So what might be a moral question in the United States becomes a technical question in the United Kingdom.”
Father Pacholczyk said it’s a mistake to think the moral wrongs involved in creating and killing cloned human beings can be “regulated” away by government authorities.
Said Father Pacholczyk, “This is a kind of window dressing that is applied so that one can go down morally problematic avenues.”
Speaking on behalf of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Wales, criticized the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority’s decision in a Sept. 5 statement.
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.
- September 23-29, 2007