Paul Vallely: This does not violate a deep taboo

26 March 2008

Anyone alarmed by the Embryology Bill should study its science, says Paul Vallely

Roman Catholics in the Cabinet, we keep being told, are “wrestling with their consciences” on the question of human-animal DNA fusions. Interestingly, we have yet to hear from these ministers themselves. That may indicate that the subject is more complicated than has been billed.

Roman Catholic prelates have had a deal to say on the need for politicians to have “an informed conscience”. But that cannot mean for Catholic Labour MPs that the Labour whip must be replaced by a Catholic whip. To act in good conscience, they need to inform themselves on the detail of the science, as well as on the teaching of the Church.

The problem I have, as a Roman Catholic, is that the science suggests something other than a “monstrous attack on human rights”, to quote Cardinal Keith O’Brien. We need more than the “yuk” factor to guide us here.

There are various kinds of possible animal-human hybrids. There are chimeras, which could be formed by merging human and animal embryos. There could be hybrids, made by fertilising a human egg with an animal sperm, or vice versa. And there could be cybrids, made by inserting human DNA into an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed.

The first two, which would justify the Cardinal’s extravagant language, are not what is being considered in the Bill before Parliament. It concerns only the third, which would take a human skin cell and place it inside a cow’s egg, from which the genetic material has been removed.

The result would be grown in a laboratory for a few days, allowing the human DNA to revert to a state in which it is capable of issuing instructions for building every cell in the human body. The resulting stem cells would then be harvested, to be used by scientists to discover how those instructions are switched on — and how they might be used to persuade the body to repair or replace its defective cells.

The idea that this violates a deep taboo, or destroys the concept of human uniqueness, or redefines what it is to be a human being, is predicated on the assumption that what is being created is an embryo. This is why we hear talk about “unborn human life”, or even “experiments on babies”. Yet using animal eggs to reprogramme adult skin cells in a cell-cluster without a nervous system is not creating an embryo in any meaningful sense.

This is not the product of a sperm and egg. It could not survive much more than a week in vitro. The proposed law would make it illegal to sustain it for more than 14 days, or to implant it in a human or animal womb. Nothing that is recognisably human life is being created or terminated. Indeed, the creation of this pseudo-embryo will reduce scientists’ demands for research on genuine human embryos. Roman Catholics ought to think this a superior alternative, not a worse one.

The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally recognised limits to the argument that we must not do things that are not natural. There were no ethical objections when faulty human heart valves were replaced with ones taken from pigs, or when genes were added to farm animals to make them produce human insulin. Fusions of human and animal cells have been used as research tools since the 1960s: they helped map the human genome, identified genes that cause human cancers, and produced medical treatments such as monoclonal antibodies. The history of science, from animal breeding to chemical pharmacology to blood transfusions, is full of breakthroughs that once felt taboo-breaking.

Humankind is still at work in the creation process as a divine agent. To recognise that is not to deny that there is something distinctive about human beings. It is, rather, to acknowledge and to celebrate the gifts they have been given.

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