Hybrid Stem Cell Research: A Step Too Far
Posted: 16 January 2009
A group of researchers in the UK have been denied further funding for their stem cell research which involves the creation of human-animal "hybrid" clones. Funding bodies are refusing to underwrite the research, though they have not explicitly outlined the reasons for doing so.
The stem cell researchers believe that certain factions within the decision-making bodies, which include fellow scientists, are refusing support on moral grounds.
It is not the response of researchers that I find baffling here, but that of a mainstream newspaper. At least one British newspaper, The Independent, expresses incredulity, pointing out that refusing funding may cause Britain to lose her place as a world leader in stem cell research. I say, fine, let's lose our place if staying number one means crossing the line between expediency and wisdom.
The attitude expressed by this particular newspaper - an attitude shared no doubt by quite a few in the scientific community - seems to imply that achieving first place in any field of scientific endeavour justifies whatever means are required to get there.
Why bother with ethics and morality, it seems to say, when we are talking about Britain occupying first place in an area of scientific discovery - albeit one which in which some civilised countries are reluctant to participate?
The whole idea of human-animal hybrids, even at the level of embryos and eggs, boggles the mind. I suppose, in the year that we celebrate the birth of Charles Darwin, we ought not to be too surprised if some of his disciples seek to carry his theories to a logical conclusion.
It is rare to find a thinking person these days who would argue against micro-evolution, or adaptation within species. Any argument against evolution is usually aimed at the idea that the process of evolution can jump species, or entire life forms - as in the idea that a simple amoeba can evolve over time into a complex life form such as a human being.
If macro-evolution is a reality - if one species can evolve, through a series of stages, into a completely different species - then there are no fundamental differences between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom. In that case, any objections to animal-human hybrid research are based on nothing more than convention, or taste.
If, however, you take the traditional Judaeo-Christian approach that only human beings are endowed with a special God-likeness in their design, then there are fundamental differences between human beings and animals. Muslims share this belief.
In this view, mixing the species at a very fundamental level is a form of sacrilege - it demeans divine design - and quite probably therefore is a formula for disaster.
For some time, an argument has raged within the scientific and political communities; not as to whether or not stem cells offer us important advances in fighting disease and prolonging life, but as to how we should harvest these cells.
Stem cells are primitive cells that can divide quickly to produce more specialised cells. Basically, they can be used to repair any area of cellular damage, even rebuilding entire organs.
Until recently, the major contention has been between those who argue for the use of stem cells taken from human embryos - which have been discarded during IVF processes - and those who want to see research restricted to the use of adult stem cells.
Lately, scientists have found that adult stem cells offer better results - without the same ethical questions. Adult stem cells are found right through our bodies. If you suffered an organ failure - a heart attack, for example - stem cells could be taken from your own body can be removed, then re-injected where they are most needed. Your body would, in a sense, heal itself - with a little help from medical science.
The argument has raged between these two camps for some time. Now, however, a third element has entered the debate - the use of hybrid technologies.
It is a dangerous path we tread when we seek to interfere with the natural order at its most basic level. With hybrid technologies we are not simply using 'parts' from one life form to help another, we are essentially trying to create, in the test tube, the basic material for a new life form - and one which is part human.
Some will argue that we're only talking about cells, not entire beings. The point remains, though, that these cells represent the building blocks of a half-human life form. This ought to be no less shocking to us than cloning human life, which is frowned upon, indeed illegal, in most civilized countries. And who's to say that if we condone and financially underwrite such activities today, we won't see scientists tomorrow using the techniques to take the process a few steps beyond the cellular stage. Such things never happen 'overnight', but incrementally.
No, I do not need to be reminded that progress requires change. I will celebrate as much as the next person the human capacity for curiosity that leads us to new discoveries and fresh frontiers of knowledge.
We should not be calling for a cessation of progress; simply a pause now and again to reflect on the possible consequences of our actions in generations to come. Our science is outstripping the pace of our discussion on ethics.
When we start breaking down the distinction between human and animal, we are not in a position to foresee how our actions will impact on the future. There will always seem to be a good reason for introducing some new technique fast - especially in the face of human suffering and sickness.
In 1967 a diving accident left Joni Eareckson Tada a quadriplegic. Two years of painful rehabilitation followed, where she adapted to a wheelchair bound life, even learning how to paint with a brush held between her teeth. Today, her example of hope and community service in the face of disability is an inspiration to millions around the world. Her books are read around the world and her 'Joni and Friends' organisation helps thousands of people with disabilities every year.
On the subjects stem cell research and biotech generally, she is quite clear.
'I have been paralysed for almost 40 years,' she says. 'I would love to walk again, honestly I would. But not at any price. I think it is more important to bequeath to this world a moral compass.'
'When people start killing human life in order to gain a cure, that kind of exploitation is very, very dangerous to people like me with disabilities because the week and the vulnerable are always exposed in a society that thinks nothing of destroying human life. If we violate human embryos today we become callous, we become endured to transgressing the unborn child with a disability, then the infant with a disability, then the elderly.'
'As a quadriplegic I don't want to live in a world where the pharmaceutical and biotech industries set the moral agenda.'
Providing funding for hybrid research is a step too far. It places way too much power in the hands of scientists who, let's be honest, are as driven by short-term concerns about achieving status, beating the competition and making money as the rest of the human community.
Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009. All rights reserved.