Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 47

Submission from Professor Thomas Baldwin, Department of Philosophy, University of York

  1.  My background to this issue is that during 2002-05 I was a member of the HFEA and the UK Stem Cell Bank Steering Committee. During that time, especially while the review of the 1990 HFE Act was under consideration, the issue you are considering concerning the regulation of hybrid and chimera embryos, was often discussed, both at the HFEA and the Stem Cell Bank Steering Committee. I readily recall one excellent discussion at the Stem Cell Bank Steering Committee in early 2005 (I think) when the possible uses of different types of hybrid and chimera were clearly explained and we reached the conclusion that as long as the 14 day rule was strictly adhered to there was be no objection in principle to embryo research involving such hybrids and chimeras. I regret that I no longer have the papers from that meeting though I assume that the MRC could supply them if you wanted them.

  2.  One conclusion from these discussions, however, was that it was not clear whether work of this kind was covered by current regulations, and that it was desirable that it should be. So I welcome the Government's intention to bring regulation of this kind of work under the remit of RATE as specified in §§2.81-5 of the Review of the 1990 HFE Act. But the issue which remains to be further discussed is whether the proposal in §2.85 is satisfactory.

  3.  My own view is that the proposal in §2.85 is too restrictive. While I fully appreciate that the issue here is one which raises strong feelings, I have yet to encounter a good argument to the effect that embryo research involving human/animal hybrids should not be permitted given that research involving human embryos is permitted. It is of course obvious those who object to the latter will object to the former as well on much the same grounds; but the question here is whether specifically animal/human embryo research should be permitted. A key point here is the 14 day rule: for this rule prohibits the development of a hybrid embryo to a stage at which it has the status of a moral subject in its own right, since at that stage it has no consciousness, however rudimentary.

  4.  It might be argued that any mixing of cells from different species is "unnatural" and therefore wrong. Yet animal work can involve interbreeding between species (as with the creation of mules) and as long as no cruelty is involved there seems nothing wrong about this. But, it may be said, there is something special about the status of human beings, so that creating animal/human hybrids or chimeras is intrinsically wrong. Certainly, many people think this at first, when the issue is put to them. But this is one of those cases where one's first thoughts, and immediate feelings, need to be challenged. I very much welcome this inquiry by the Select Committee precisely because it should provide a forum in which this challenge is openly debated.

  5.  I do accept that the creation of living organisms who are animal/human hybrids gives rise to difficult ethical questions about their moral status and interests, though much depends on the facts of the case. For example whereas the xenotransplantation to a human of, say, a pig's kidney is ethically unproblematic (though it may well be unsafe for other reasons), the transplantation of a primate brain to a human would be problematic if it radically altered the recipient's consciousness and sense of identity. Equally the use of animals such as mice to grow replacement parts for humans (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1949073.stm) gives rise to ethical questions from an animal welfare perspective. But none of these questions arises for embryo research restricted by the 14 day rule. So far as I can see this restriction removes any grounds one might have for objecting to work which involves human/animals hybrids.

  5. Hence, since there is reason to think that the creations of hybrid and chimera embryos would be valuable for the purpose of medical research (as §2.83 of the Review of the 1990 HFE Act acknowledges), my judgment is that the proposal in §2.85 is unnecessarily restrictive.

January 2007





 
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