Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 1

Submission from St Mary's University College

  St Mary's University College, Twickenham was established in 1850. Having offered degrees first through the University of London and then through the University of Surrey, it has recently gained its own degree awarding powers. The College has a growing portfolio of work in bioethics, offering an MA in Bioethics, in addition to modules in bioethics across seven other degree programmes. It also has an increasing number of postgraduate research students and research-active staff working in this area.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  Public opinion and public accountability are both important in shaping public policy on the research into, and application of, new technologies. It is clearly essential to consult scientists on technical matters, and to canvass different scientific opinions. Nevertheless, technical expertise is not equivalent to moral expertise. Indeed, the submissions of those with personal, professional or financial interests in the proposed work need to be judged with particular care. In an open democracy it is right that consultation on this issue should be wide-ranging and should embrace arguments put forward by a variety of groups, parties and individuals. The creation of animal/human hybrids represents a significant ethical transition at a time when cloning and interspecies hybridisation are innovative and controversial technologies even outside the human context. It is very difficult to justify such a drastic step at this time.

SUBMISSION

  1.  We note the time frame for submissions on this issue is just twelve days and consider this to be very short for a comprehensive survey of evidence on this issue. A limited time frame is only likely to benefit a selective and highly unrepresentative group. We would urge the committee, if it intends to make recommendations on this issue, to extend this time frame to allow wider consultation, and to ensure a broad spectrum of oral evidence. The recommendations of the government white paper emerged from an extensive consultation for the Department of Health on the Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (535 submissions collected from 16 August 2005 to 25 November 2005). An adequate assessment of the proposals of the white paper would also seem to require a detailed examination of all the evidence submitted in that consultation, for this formed the basis for the resulting Report.

  2.  We note the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has already agreed to conduct a larger consultation into issues specifically relating to animal/human hybrids. Given the time frame of the Committee's own inquiry, we urge the Committee not to seek to pre-empt the conclusions of the HFEA consultation exercise. Rather, we believe that the Committee could best utilise its limited time by highlighting what it regards as the key areas for further investigation, and identifying groups or individuals who should be consulted as part of a more extensive weighing of opinion.

  3.  We ask the Committee to consider the prejudicial effect of media hype on this issue—both for ("essential work for finding cures of many diseases") and against ("Frankenbunnies")—and to consider the issues in as calm and reflective a manner as possible.

  4.  It is clearly essential to consult scientists on technical matters, and to canvass different scientific opinions. Nevertheless, technical expertise is not equivalent to moral expertise. Indeed, the submissions of those with personal, professional or financial interests in the proposed work need to be judged with particular care. Recent events in Korea have underscored both the need for appropriate caution as to the claims made in this area and the need for proper ethical regulation.

  5.  In a democratic society, ethical and moral arguments both secular and religious should be considered. Religious viewpoints should neither be given disproportionate weight nor be dismissed on the basis of their affiliation. Rather, all ethical views should be evaluated solely on their strength and cogency.

  6.  Public opinion and public accountability are both important in shaping public policy on the research into, and application of, new technologies. This is true in a range of issues from genetically modified foods to the use of primates in research or indeed to the assessment of the merits of nuclear technology. This does not imply that all such issues should be decided by referendum, but it does suggest that decisions ought not to be made by experts in isolation, but ought to be subject to democratic scrutiny. Such scrutiny should include lay involvement and proper consideration of feedback from the public.

  7.  Utility is not the only or even pre-eminent ethical principle in bioethics. In addition to consequences, it is necessary to consider the means by which these are secured and to respect a range of human values. It is sometimes necessary to draw a clear line demarcating what a society will not permit. With regard to the creation of animal/human hybrids and chimeras many countries have already done this, and the Committee should examine international perspectives, especially within Europe. We urge that the Committee give serious consideration to whether the United Kingdom should ratify the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine.

  8.  We consider that the use of animal/human hybrids is not the only, nor even the most effective way to ensure the translation of stem cell research into the production of actual treatments. It is being proposed at a time when other sources of stem cells offer more immediate hopes of clinical benefits. The creation of animal/human hybrids represents a significant ethical transition at a time when cloning and interspecies hybridisation are innovative and controversial technologies even outside the human context. It is very difficult to justify such a drastic step at this time.

January 2007





 
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