Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)



  Q160  Chairman: You are fundamentally opposed to even developing the techniques using animal eggs and human material, is that your position?

  Dr King: I think it is not a good research methodology.

  Q161  Chairman: Is that your position though? That is where we sum you up?

  Dr King: I would say it is a waste of scientific time and money to try to do it this way.

  Q162  Chairman: So you are opposed to it?

  Dr King: Yes.

  Q163  Adam Afriyie: Does your point of view not create the results of research, because surely that is what this research is there to establish, whereas you are making an assumption already perhaps of what those results will be?

  Dr King: I am making a scientific judgment based on what we know already. People have been trying to create these kinds of embryos for at least eight years. We have so far one unreplicated published paper in an obscure Chinese journal, to say they had not had a chance of success. I am putting myself in the position of a research funder. If somebody came to me with this proposal, what kind of grade would I give them? I would give them a D minus.

  Q164  Chairman: Thank you, you have made that point. Can I come to you, Dr MacKellar. In your evidence to us, and it is mentioned on a number of occasions, you use the phrase `human dignity' and that you must not compromise human dignity. Can you explain to the Committee what you mean by that?

  Dr MacKellar: There are a number of ways of looking at human dignity. One of the main philosophers behind human dignity is Emmanual Kant. Just to summarise, one of the things he was saying was that human dignity comes from the capacity of persons to look at autonomy, that human persons are rational and that human persons also should not be seen just as a means to an end but as an end in themselves. That is the first way of looking at it. Another way of looking at human dignity is the way we behave in a dignified manner towards other people, so other people do not have dignity but we behave in a dignified manner towards them. The third way, and this is the way that the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics uses, is the same one as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It talks in its Preamble, for example, of inherent human dignity. Inherent human dignity is not something scientific, it is a belief, and the United Nations Declaration is a declaration, it is not proof of human dignity. Nobody can prove that anybody has human dignity, it is a belief, and this is the position of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.

  Q165  Chairman: In terms of your position, trying to develop techniques which, you could argue, would restore human dignity to patients suffering from Parkinson's or motor neurone disease, is there a balance to be made there about human dignity, or is your view of human dignity absolute?

  Dr MacKellar: The view of the United Nations is absolute and our view is absolute. That being said, sometimes you have got to balance absolutes against each other, in a way; it is a bit complicated.

  Q166  Dr Turner: On the point of human dignity, one very important part of the ethical consideration is what constitutes humanity. Where do you stand? Do you take the strictly Catholic view, that it starts at fertilisation? Do you consider that a blastocyst, or a ball of cells, which is all a 14-day embryo is, has human dignity?

  Dr MacKellar: You used the term "humanity", this is one of the big questions which should be asked here. We are creating entities which are half human, half animal. Should they have any dignity, that is the question, in a way, and it is a very difficult question, something that we have been struggling with on the Council for a number of years. We have been working on this for two or three years, and on some of the experiments which have been proposed we still do not have answers and there is still a discussion in our Council. We would need a lot more time to give you an answer on some of these things, and the humanity part is not the important part.

  Q167  Dr Turner: Is dignity not a function of all the characteristics of a human, its sentient nature, et cetera which, by definition, a ball of cells cannot satisfy?

  Dr MacKellar: Yes, but it is not in the definition of inherent human dignity. We are not talking about piles of cells or embryos, or whatever, we are talking about persons.

  Q168  Dr Turner: There is no person though?

  Dr MacKellar: It depends. What is the definition of "a person"? What would be your definition of "a person"?

  Q169  Chairman: We are asking the questions, that is the idea of these committees.

  Dr MacKellar: These are important definitions and they are also related to theology.

  Q170  Chairman: I was going to come to the other theologian.

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I think the way that we have approached it in the Church of England, and, as I have said, there are different views, is that we need to preserve something about the developmental understanding of how human dignity is given and conferred. I guess the bottom line for Christian people would be to talk in terms of human beings, in terms of personhood, as we have just heard there, and the image of God. What we understand is that there are stages in that development and we cannot say when that might be conferred, but it means that we do also need some humility in talking about human personhood. I think the Church of England would be ill disposed to somebody talking about a human blastocyst, in any terms, as being just a mess of protoplasm, equivalent to cow protoplasm for example.

  Q171  Dr Turner: I am familiar with the Church of England's position, but the Church of England's position is such that at least it encompasses work up to 14 days with an embryo, despite the fact that it is on the road to recognition as a human entity, but clearly the Church of England, at any rate, accepts the 14-day limit and that prior to that it may be a protohuman but it does not have dignity. Is that reasonable?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: Yes, although what was key about the Warnock recommendations, and ones which I think the Church of England has found helpful, is that it does accord a special status to that stage, it is not saying it is equivalent but it is saying there is a special status which puts some kind of hedge around what we can do. What is interesting about the proposals is that we are taking it another step. Let us just assume that, contrary to Dr King's assertion, you could put somatic adult nuclear material into a rabbit oocyte, or whatever, and you could get something that was going to turn into a human being, if it were implanted into a human being. Then you have got to say that this has human status, in some way.

  Q172  Dr Harris: In that case, why should it have greater protection than a purely human embryo?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: If it is a human being it needs to have protection.

  Q173  Dr Harris: Sorry, why should it have more protection? Your initial response to the Government's proposals was to say the law should not be changed to permit the creation of human-animal embryos for research, and it is this entity which you have described as an example.

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: That is because it was, "What are you proposing to do? Come back to us and give us a bit more clarity and we'll think about it."

  Q174  Chairman: This is the question, about the difference between a human embryo and an animal.

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I would say, a human is a human is a human. How many genes do you need to put in a human being to make it a human?

  Chairman: For fourteen days?

  Q175  Dr Harris: I will put my question again. You said that because the Warnock consensus says it has special status, which I understand, there needs to be a hedge around actions in this area. Some people would say that the 1990 Act created that hedge, that is the HFEA, and it is not being suggested, as far as I know, that this goes ahead willy-nilly without regulation by the HFEA. Within that context, should it be argued that things which potentially might be human, as you have described in your earlier answer, effectively the equivalent of human embryos, should have greater protection from experimentation than what the Church of England already accepts with caveats, which is that fully-human embryos, whether by cloning or by fertilisation, can be destructively experimented on within those 14-day constraints?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I see the argument you are making there. I think—and I cannot always speak for the Church of England collectively because we have not had these discussions yet—that I would put in alongside that observation, and that is an important one, is actually what are you doing to humanity? If you are saying, "Well, it is human but it is less than human", what are the kinds of issues we need to be looking at to try to define exactly that question? It takes us into an entirely different area, because some might say, in this debate, we are talking about something less than human so should we afford it those criteria, or are we saying that we are interfering with what is human in a very elemental way? I think it is because it is talking about germ-line cell, it is talking about gametes, and there is a widespread public unease about those kinds of spheres, that we need to take some time to think through the ethics of it, and I think your point would be one of the angles which one would develop to see where that took us.

  Q176  Dr Harris: In respect of your initial response to the Government's consultation, you answered question 61, in a very broad statement: "The law should not be changed to permit the creation of human-animal embryos for research." Do you regret that now, that the Bishop of Southwark did not explain what you have now explained, that this is a temporary answer, and in any consideration, or more consideration, or clarification about what you mean, would you think it is okay for the Church just to put in a one-liner; it is a negative?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I think it was a blunt question and it got a blunt answer, to be honest.

  Chairman: I want to leave that for now. Thank you for being so blunt with us.

  Q177  Dr Iddon: Chairman, I would like to direct just a couple of questions to Dr MacKellar, first. Your organisation, Dr MacKellar, has laid down a series of six conditions, which I have in a box here. If all those six conditions were met, would you be happy for this kind of research to proceed?

  Dr MacKellar: Yes. I should say though that, as I have already mentioned, there are continuing discussions in our Council on some of these experiments, proposed experiments, but, as they were submitted a few weeks ago, that is the position of the Council, yes.

  Q178  Dr Iddon: I think your organisation sees that there is some biomedical risk associated with this technique of creating, what I would prefer to call them, interspecies embryo, which is over 99% human, if we use cows' eggs, increasingly human because the genomes in the nucleus are spinning off mitochondria into the cytoplasm which are more human than the mitochondria which have been donated by the cow. What is unsafe about that? Where is the threat coming from?

  Dr MacKellar: First of all, the science might have to be looked at again, and David King might say a few things about this. The consultation was not just about cybrids, it was also about chimeras and hybrids. Let us take, for example, an embryo which is created from, say, five totipotent animal cells—

  Q179  Dr Iddon: I am asking you a specific question. I would like an answer to the specific question first. What is the threat from the experiment that I have just given you?

  Dr MacKellar: If you were creating a chimera, we could have problems of new interspecies diseases being created. For example, we have a lot of problems at the moment with xeno-transplantation, with the possibility if you are using pigs' organs for implanting.

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