Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 53

Submission from the Church of Scotland, and the Church and Society Council

1.  SUMMARY OF OUR CONCERNS

  We wish to express our concern at the proposals to allow the licensing of the nuclear transfer of human cells into enucleated animal eggs to create animal-human "hybrid" embryos.

  We wish to express concern for several reasons:

    —  that serious ethical concerns are raised by mixing animal and human reproductive cells;

    —  the presumption by scientists arguing for these experiments that the human embryo has no moral status at all, which seems to us to be in contradiction to the basis of UK law;

    —  the questionable nature of the scientific claims for the proposed research;

    —  that a "shortage" of donated human eggs does not in itself justify the use of animal eggs;

    —  that considerable and misleading exaggerations have been made by some scientists about the importance of this type of work within the fields of embryonic stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

  We wish to make clear that this does not, however, spring from a rejection of all research on the human embryo. In 2006 The Church and Society Council completed an extensive study by an expert working group which included leading Scottish embryonic and adult stem cell scientists from the research groups at Roslin Institute, the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. Based on this study, the May 2006 General Assembly accepted the conditional use of spare IVF and PGD embryos for stem cell research. It considered that the creation of cloned embryos using human eggs might be justified under very exceptional cases. The isolation of diseased cells to study motor neurone disease might be one such case. It considered the use of animal eggs to create hybrid cloned embryos but rejected it as unethical.[55] [56]

2.  OUR INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ANIMAL-HUMAN HYBRID CLONING

  The Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRT), which is a part of the Church and Society Council, has followed closely the scientific developments of nuclear transfer cloning since it first began to discuss Roslin's research in this area with Ian Wilmut in 1995. By the time Dolly was announced, SRT had already given considerable thought to the ethical implications of animal and human cloning, enabling the Church of Scotland General Assembly to give its formal opinion in May 1997.[57] When the US company Advanced Cell Technologies claimed to have made an embryo from an enucleated cow egg and human nuclear material in 1998, SRT considered the ethical implications, drawing on its extensive work on animal genetic modification and xenotransplantation in its Engineering Genesis study.[58] SRT also visited ACT's laboratories and discussed their work. It commented critically ACT's claim, also made by the US National Bioethics Advisory Council of the Clinton administration, that such hybrids might perhaps overcome the ethical objections to deriving stem cells from human embryos.[59] It has also commented on the Chinese rabbit-human hybrid claims of 2002, on your Select Committee's opinion of 2005, and the press discussions of January 2006 and 2007.[60] The Church and Society Council also discussed the matter in its submission in 2005 to the Government's review of the HFE Act.[61] It has also considered hybrids in the context of research into mitochondrial disease.

3.  OUR CONCERNS IN MORE DETAIL

(a)   Ethical Objections to Animal-Human Hybrid Cloned Embryos

  Our view is that research should not be allowed that involves the mixing of animal and human reproductive cells to create an embryo-like entity. We fully recognise that this is not a matter of making live chimeric creatures. But the cross-species admixture of reproductive cells poses significant ethical concerns in itself. Even though only 1% of animal material is involved, it is still a form of hybridisation. We hold that humans and animals, though having many similarities, are nonetheless different in more than just the biological distinctions among species. The Church of Scotland is not opposed to the addition of a human gene into animals for producing therapeutic proteins in sheep's milk, nor of the idea of xenotransplanation as such.[62] The identity and integrity of both animals and human beings are far more than a sum of their genes or functions, and is not necessarily violated by adding a single gene.

  Because it involves a reproductive entity, the proposed research would be a more fundamental type of mixing than in the above examples or other current practices where animal and human cells are fused. To create a hybrid reproductive entity, even in an early stage of development, would already possess at least some moral status. We consider that this would blur the moral distinction between animal and human in a way which is unacceptable.

  We disagree with the presumption that, because it could not lead to a viable pregnancy, the entity so created should have no moral status or consideration given to it. In UK law, as we understand it, all human embryos are considered to possess a degree of moral status less than that of a baby, but above that given to mere cells, and that this status is independent on their viability as embryos.[63] Similarly an animal-human hybrid embryo would possess a moral status of some sort, inherent in its existence not its fate. UK law treats embryos as a class, regardless of whether any particular embryo is viable or not. As in other spheres of human capacity, viability is not the sole criterion for moral value. It could also be argued that it is an immoral act to choose a route which cannot avoid the resulting human embryo being so deformed that it cannot be viable.

  We were critical of your Committee's 2005 report on Human Reproductive Technologies, which recognised the revulsion of some about "blurring the distinction between animals and humans" but then overrode such concerns by citing what seems a very suspect argument, that there would be less ethical concern about animal-human hybrid embryos because there was less human material involved.[64] In our experience, this latter claim would not seem to be well founded in either ethics or public opinion.

  Christian teaching on compassion for the sick has been a motivation for scientific research in medicine for centuries, but always within moral limits. Respect for the embryo means that research in this area should only be for extremely important medical goals achievable no other way. Some experiments, no matter how medically useful, would be unethical. The Church of Scotland consider that to create animal-human hybrid embryos by mixing human and animal reproductive cells would pass a moral limit.

(b)   Ethical Presumptions of Scientists and the Select Committee

  Many scientists arguing for this research have framed their case on the implicit or explicit presumption that the product of fusing an enucleated animal egg and a human cell are merely cells which possess no moral status at all. It is assumed that they may therefore create them at will and do what they like to them. We are concerned if justification for this research is thereby made on the basis of personal ethical views about of the status of the embryo, which would de facto be imposed on society at large, and which are at variance with UK law. As we have observed above, the HFE Act confers a moral status on the human embryo. If that is so, then a hybrid embryo comprising human and animal cells logically also has a moral status.

  What is it status? Should we be creating such entities and doing research upon them? We have given our own views above, but until these fundamental ethical questions have been properly addressed at a national level and some democratic conclusion reached, it would be quite improper to allow or propose research. The 2005 Select Committee recommendations said that this question of the status of such hybrids needed to be clarified, but promptly prejudged the answer in its next clause, by recommending to Parliament that their creation for research purposes be made legal.[65] This seemed entirely premature, begging the answer to the question before allowing it to be explored, both at an expert level and especially in discussion with wider publics. After the disastrous experience over public and scientific policy on GM crops and the continuing mood of concern about novel and controversial technologies, such a discussion is essential, and in due course it should be decided by Parliament in a free vote.

(c)   The Research is Scientifically Doubtful and Unnecessary

  We consider that the broad purposes of stem cell and related research can be addressed in ways that do not need recourse to this uncertain and, as we see it, unethical approach. The justification of the importance of this work is very doubtful, even without the ethical objections discussed above. We note that the vast majority of stem cell research is derived from surplus embryos from IVF treatments or from adult tissue. Animal-human hybrids do not relate to mainstream of this research, but only to a specialised and highly speculative area involving cloned embryos, which would be illegal in most of Europe and most other countries of the world, and which has been the subject of recent grave scientific fraud in Korea.

  When Advanced Cell Technologies first claimed a cow-human "hybrid" cloned embryo in November 1998 and news of embryos from rabbit eggs and human somatic cells emerged from China around 2002, these were treated as dubious claims or oddities. Failed attempts at cross-species cloning of endangered species suggested problems with the concept of using the egg of one species to reprogramme the nuclei of another. We note with concern that the basis for the current proposals seem to rest largely on a single published paper in China, and that in your committee's 2005 report on reproductive technologies you cite the leading UK stem cell scientist, Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, as casting doubts on some of the Chinese claims.[66] This is not the basis of sound science on which to argue for radical and ethically controversial research.

  We agreed with the assessment on animal-human hybrids made in 2000 by the Chief Medical Officer's committee set up to assess the scientific potential and legal and ethical implications of "therapeutic cloning" and human embyonic stem cells, and which formed the amendments to UK legislation by Parliament later that year. While allowing cloned embryos for stem cell research, the shortage of human eggs would not make it a basis for treatment. It concluded that using the eggs of another species "would raise many technical and ethical issues. Most researchers active in this field do not regard this as a realistic or desirable way forward."[67]

  We were pleased that the Government's response agreed on this point, saying that it would bring forward primary legislation to ban the mixing of human cells with animal eggs, and calling on funding bodies "to make it clear that they will not fund or support research involving the creation of such hybrids."[68] We are concerned at the Government's failure to implant these. Primary legislation was not brought forward. We are particularly concerned that the message to funding bodies has evidently not been given or has not been heeded. We would like an explanation why British research groups have been allowed to apply for licenses to do research, presumably relying on public funds, in a field which the present Government said should be banned.

  The creation of cloned embryos to obtain stem cells and derive from them neuronal cells which exhibit the effects of motor neurone disease research was proposed in 2004. We had discussed these aims in detail with Roslin scientists on several prior occasions and at the press conference in Edinburgh in 2004, and said that there might be ethical justification for this exceptional case. The scientists gave no indication at that time that they would need to use animal cells to create the cloned embryos in order to achieve their objectives. If researchers had considered that human eggs are sufficient for this kind of experiment, it seems extraordinary that animal eggs are suddenly being claimed as integral to it. Had this been proposed, we would not have expressed even a conditional support.

  Whilst not being expert on such matters, we have followed the progress of somatic cell nuclear transfer in animals and humans over many years. We are well aware of the many technical difficulties that trying to reprogramme human cells back to an embryonic state using human eggs. Having discussed it with many of the world's leading researchers in this field, we are aware of significant inherent concerns in the reprogramming procedure which are seen as contributory to many serious difficulties in animal cloning. To date, no researcher has produced a viable stem cell line from a cloned embryo even derived from human eggs.

  To attempt therefore to reprogramme human somatic cells with animal eggs must logically be viewed as a very speculative exercise, considerably more doubtful than nuclear transfer cloning with human eggs. Mixing species would introduce uncertainties as to the validity for use of the cells produced. It is very uncertain whether it would yield significantly useful data. It also runs against the current trend to ensure that animal components, such as feeder cells, are eliminated in the generation of human embryonic stem cell lines. We draw particular attention to the fact that the HFE Act permits human embryo research only in cases where the work is realistic, important and no other route would suffice. On present evidence, animal-human hybrid cloned embryo research would not satisfy these conditions.

(d)   Concerning the "Shortage" of Eggs

  To argue for the "need" to use animal eggs because of a shortage of human eggs is not a straightforward scientific claim. It is a value-laden claim which begs a number of moral questions. It makes implicit value judgements about what is meant by a shortage, what constitutes a justified need, and what constitutes a justified way of meeting that need. It draws a conclusion about these competing ethical values which may or may not be generally agreed. These ethical dimensions need to be made transparent when scientists and doctors make such claims in public.

  To suggest using animal eggs as a way to avoid a shortage already presupposes that the research is more important, per se, than the supply of eggs. We note that a "shortage" of eggs for research has not suddenly arisen because cloning researchers feel constrained in their particular research programmes. For example, the question was widely discussed nationally in 1993-94 in the context of the work of Edinburgh researcher Dr Roger Gosden on foetal ovarian tissue.[69] The researcher may assume that his or her research justifies both the need for the eggs and to increase their supply. But it could equally be argued that, if eggs are a sensitive human tissue which would only ever be available in limited quantities, researchers should recognise the importance of other human values in such cases, and duly set their aspirations realistically within the limits of supply.

  In various submissions, statements and reports we have drawn attention to concerns about human egg donation in the context of so-called "therapeutic" cloning. To provide genetically matched replacement cells from cloned embryos derived from a patient's own cells would need an impractically large supply of donated human eggs to be a normal therapy. We pointed out that this is an invasive method which is not complete free of risk. Nonetheless, we were assured by scientists and policy makers that plenty of women would donate if they saw good reason, and that there were medical circumstances under which extraction of eggs donation might be done during other surgical interventions. There seems to be an inconsistency in logic that, in the present context of justifying the use of animal eggs, researchers now cite the reasons why human egg donation is problematic.

  Whilst we agree with the problems over human egg donation, this cannot of itself justify the use of animal eggs, given that it also raises serious ethical concerns. One does not solve one ethical problem by creating another.

(e)   Exaggerations of the significance of the research and about "delaying cures"

  Our last objection is a serious ethical concern about what we consider to be exaggerations and misleading claims reported in recent weeks by scientists and even by some members of your own committee. What has hitherto been a rather obscure and very uncertain part of embryology has been defended by letters to the Times signed by Nobel laureates and lobbied for by stem cell researchers and politicians. It is suggested that the basis that the future of UK stem cell research depends on allowing mixed cloned embryos from fusing animal eggs and human somatic cells. There have even been claims that to deny such experiments would delay cures for terminal diseases.

  We consider that these claims are both incorrect and irresponsible. We have already indicated that the vast majority of stem cell research uses spare IVF embryos or adult tissues, which does not depend on the outcome of animal-human cloned hybrids. Delay might be a significant factor for a near certain therapeutic method, which a particular course of experiments alone would give the missing breakthrough. In this case, it is basic research of uncertain outcome, many years, perhaps decades, from clinical application, and about which other scientists raise substantial technical doubts.

  In a country which already has the most permissive legislation in this area in Europe, it seems extraordinary that it should become seen as a matter of scientific principle to go even further, and to allow animal-human hybrid cloning as well. We are concerned more generally at premature expectations about stem cell research being raised by these kinds of claims, especially following the Korean cloning scandal. It has been amply shown in that continuing trust in science, in this and other sensitive areas, depends crucially on responsibility by scientists and the claims that they make for their work. We fear that to press further for ethically controversial experiments, and to make exaggerated claims for the technique in support of them, may cause a public backlash against stem cell research in general.

February 2007




















55   Church of Scotland (2006a) Summary Report on Embryo Research, Human Stem Cells and Cloned Embryos, Reports to the General Assembly and Deliverances of the General Assembly 2006, pp.2/2-2/3 and 2/33-2/40. Back

56   Church of Scotland (2006b), Report of the working group on Embryo Research, Human Stem Cells and Cloned Embryos, chapter 5. Back

57   Church of Scotland (1997) Cloning Animals and Humans, Supplementary Report to the General Assembly and Deliverances of the General Assembly 1997. Back

58   Bruce, D. and Bruce, A. (eds) (1998), Engineering Genesis, chapter 5, Earthscan: London. Back

59   US National Bioethics Advisory Council (1998), Letter to the President of the USA, 20 November 1998, NBAC, Rockville, Maryland, USA, http://www.georgetown.edu/research/nrcbl/nbac/shapiro-letter.html Back

60   Bruce, Donald (2007), Over-egging the Clones, New Scientist, 20 January 2007, p 18. Back

61   Church and Society Council (2005), Response to the Public Consultation on the Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 5 December 2005, http://www.srtp.org.uk/hfea-review.doc Back

62   Church of Scotland (2001) The Society, Religion and Technology Project report on GM Animals, Humans and the Future of Genetics, Reports to the General Assembly and Deliverances of the General Assembly 2001. Back

63   Department of Health (1984), Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cm9314, HMSO, London. Back

64   House of Commons (2005), Human Reproductive Technologies, House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Fifth Report of Session 2004-05, 25 March 2005, para 66, Stationery Office: London. Back

65   House of Commons (2005), op.cit., para 66. Back

66   House of Commons (2005), op.cit., para 66. Back

67   Department of Health (2000a), Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility, Re-port of the Chief Medical Officer's Expert Group reviewing the potential of developments in stem cell research and cell nuclear replacement to benefit human health, Department of Health, paras 2.33-2.34 and 2.62. Back

68   Department of Health (2000b), Government response to the recommendations made in the chief medical officer's expert group report "Stem cell research: medical progress with responsibility." http://www.doh.gov.uk/cegc/govresp.htm (accessed 28 Nov 2000). Back

69   BBC On-Line (2003), Aborted foetus could provide eggs, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3031800.stm, 16 July 2003. Back


 
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