Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)



  Q180  Dr Iddon: I must pin you down to the question. Where is the threat coming from, from the mitochondria of the cow's egg, which are decreasing in quantity as the embryo develops, are they coming from the nucleus? Where is the threat coming from in this experiment?

  Dr MacKellar: If you are creating a cybrid and this cybrid is being destroyed in 14 days' time and all the experiments have taken place in a laboratory and the laboratory is a safe laboratory where everything is protected, probably there are no risks whatsoever from a scientific perspective.

  Q181  Dr Iddon: The scientists we examined the other day told us they would be able to harvest adequate numbers of embryonic stem cells within the first six to seven days, they would not even need the 14 days; so you would be happy for that kind of experiment to continue? That is just a start, because they have not even started yet.

  Dr MacKellar: From other scientists, we are all scientists, from a scientific perspective I would not have a problem with that; from an ethical one I would.

  Q182  Chairman: You were shaking your head, Dr King.

  Dr King: Yes. You have got two things wrong. Firstly, this idea that these cells are 99% human and 1% animal is based on the most simplistic genetic reductionism, which says that you can read off the biological characteristics of these cells on the basis of counting the numbers of genes. What that ignores is the crucial thing which would determine the biological characteristics of these cells, the nuclear reprogramming in the very early stages of development, which will or will not work well; in my opinion it will not work at all well. The second point is the idea, and you have been told, I know, for these mitochondria to go away, but there are papers which say that, in fact, contrary to the human mitochondria predominating, the human mitochondria will decrease, even before the blastocyst level, to nearly nil. I can give you a couple of papers on that.

  Q183  Dr Iddon: Is there a danger from that, because the mitochondria in the cytoplasm are therefore the energy production of the cell, where is the danger?

  Dr King: Dr MacKellar has been talking about the risks of virus transmissions. The viruses may be there in the cytoplasm of the eggs, for example.

  Q184  Dr Turner: Can I put to Dr MacKellar the Scottish Bioethic Council's list of criteria; technology is efficacious. How do you know it is efficacious if you have not tried it, and you are saying you cannot try it? You are setting up a catch-22.

  Dr MacKellar: For ethical reasons. There are three different ways of looking at these embryos, if they are considered as embryos. We do not even know, in the first place, if they are embryos. Either we can consider them as having full personhood, and there are millions of people probably who—

  Q185  Dr Turner: That was not the question I asked. My question was simply, how can you say that the technology is efficacious if you are not letting anyone try it?

  Dr MacKellar: I will answer the question. You cannot know without doing the research whether it would be useful or not, efficacious or not.

  Q186  Dr Turner: You will not let anyone do the research?

  Dr MacKellar: For ethical reasons.

  Q187  Dr Turner: You will not let anyone do the research, will you: yes or no?

  Dr MacKellar: No.

  Dr Turner: Thank you. That is an answer.

  Q188  Chairman: Can I just bring in the Bishop.

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I am just aware of the time. We are discussing some incredibly immense, ethical, philosophical and moral issues and to expect us all to cover the questions in 40 minutes, I wonder what is going on. I know you are not trying to do that. It was such a blunt question, if I can put that point again. Going down this kind of, is this technique going to work, is it going to be dangerous, I think we are coming in and saying let us think about actually what this is about, morally, philosophically; is this a human of some kind, or not? We have got the issues of safety at the end of the road, but they are a million miles away. Can I say also that one of the things we would want to stress is, if this is going to be important and significant and valuable, which it might turn out to be, and ethically acceptable within the parameters we decide upon, we do not want to blow it by making an injudicious decision too early on which does not measure the temperature in the country amongst people who are thoughtful people and prepared to go down different avenues, to think about the philosophical, moral and theological implications. As a medical scientist, I have seen too much hype, too much work which has been blown up to push it on and we have not been sensible and wise. There is a degree of humility which must accompany the enthusiasm here and I feel that there is a lot of pressure around the issue and I am not sure where it is coming from, or why. There is going to be consultation from the HFEA coming down the pipeline, to which organisations like my own will be able to give a considered response. One of the questions I have got on my mind is, why are we having a 40-minute discussion about such contentious things; and I think it is a fair question.

  Q189  Chairman: It is a fair question. This is a Committee which, in the previous session, before the 2005 general election, did a major study in terms of human reproductive technologies. In that, it made certain recommendations about the subject which we are talking about today and, in fact, we have given you the exact quotations from the Report which the Science and Technology Select Committee did. The Science and Technology Select Committee, at that time, urged the Government back in 2005 to look at the law to see whether, in fact, it was adequate to deal with the emerging research which was coming down the track; it says in that, the fault of this Committee in terms of not dealing with that particular issue. When the Government decided that it was going to have a Bill, a White Paper and then a draft Bill, as a Committee, we felt it was important to follow up the previous Committee's work which is exactly what we are doing. We are looking primarily at the science but accept that before Government can make a decision it needs to look at the ethics. In fact, it was this Committee, its former Committee, which made a recommendation to Government that there ought to be an ethics committee in Parliament, of both Houses, in order to be able to advise on these issues, but we are where we are. This Committee is taking a look particularly at the science, but in order to understand where the objections are coming from we need to take evidence, to put it on the record, to say, "These are the areas where people have got to be satisfied", in terms of making final decisions. I am sorry you are not getting a full session.

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: You can understand what I am saying.

  Chairman: Yes, but even if you had 10 hours it still would not be sufficient because, in terms of looking at the ethics, these are massive questions. I fully understand and I apologise if you feel you are being ill-treated, but that is not the role of the Committee.

  Q190  Dr Turner: Dr King, it seems to me from listening to you that your objections to proposals which have been put on hold by the HFEA are on technical and scientific grounds and not ethical, so can I take it that you do not have any ethical opposition nor do you see any risk?

  Dr King: No. On the contrary, I have not had a chance to talk about ethics yet. I want to emphasise the point which Dr MacKellar made earlier. For me, the crucial, ethical, dividing line when we are on the middle ground of the embryo as a morally significant entity but not a person is, whether you create the embryo purely for the purposes of research or whether that embryo has been created for the purposes of reproduction, it is not going to be used for reproduction and, therefore, it is ethically acceptable to use it in research. I think that if you create an embryo purely for the purposes of research, basically you are using it purely as a tool and a source of biological raw material for your experiments. I cannot see how that is consistent with any notion of respect for the embryo or treating it as a morally significant entity.

  Q191  Dr Turner: That may or may not be so, but the law, quite specifically, currently allows that, does it not?

  Dr King: We are one of the very few countries in the world which does allow it. There are many countries in the world which allow embryo research but only about five which allow you to create embryos purely for the purposes of research. Most of the world regards that as a really important, ethical dividing line.

  Dr Turner: That is why the rest of the world is not leading in stem cell research.

  Chairman: I am going to move on to you, Adam.

  Q192  Adam Afriyie: I want to come to the legal aspects surrounding the issue. Who do you think is best placed to make the decision on whether human-animal hybrids, chimera or cybrids are either human or non-human; is it the HFEA or is there some higher body which you would say needs to be looked at?

  Dr MacKellar: I believe very much that it should be Parliament which makes these decisions. In the end, Parliament is the final body which is representative of the people and Parliament has got its own history of what human dignity is all about; this place is built on human dignity. I welcome very much the consultation which is going to be presented to the general public, which HFEA is going to make in autumn, but I do not believe that this consultation should decide whether or not to regulate, it should be Parliament which decides. The results of this consultation should be given to Parliament, to all the MPs. We have nearly 650 MPs, with all their different views, and they can have a debate, that is what they are there for, and then make a decision together, as representatives of the people, on this topic.

  Q193  Mr Newmark: By definition then you do not believe that we should be bound by the Council of Europe Convention. If you are saying the ultimate arbiters should be the mother of all parliaments, here, where we are sitting, and assuming then you do not believe that we should be bound by the Council of Europe Convention?

  Dr MacKellar: It is only Parliament that can be bound by the Council of Europe Convention and the Council of Europe has got a specific, democratic way of doing things. We have got our views and we have got the things we believe that Parliament should do, but, finally, it is for Parliament to make the final decision. There is no other body that can do it.

  Q194  Adam Afriyie: Did you agree with that assessment?

  Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield: I think more or less. The HFEA have got the expertise in embryo areas, these are very complicated areas of science and ethics. I think we are getting into more complicated areas now that we are drifting into these hybrid questions, and eventually Parliament is accountable. Within the Christian community, there are questions about that creation of embryos, is SNCT embryo creation the same thing as if you have an IVF embryo, and I think we need some more work on that and I have found it creative to think about it in preparation for this meeting.

  Q195  Adam Afriyie: Then, Dr King, Parliament or some other body?

  Dr King: I would not add anything to what Dr MacKellar said.

  Q196  Chris Mole: Can I ask everyone what they think of the Government's proposals for future regulation, are they acceptable? Do you like the idea of a ban with a get-out clause for specific regulations covering the creation of human-animal chimera or hybrid embryos in the future? If not, what would you rather that the Government's proposals said?

  Dr King: I think I said at the beginning that I would like them to keep a ban and if it is ever going to be changed then it needs a full parliamentary debate. An unfortunate aspect of the way these debates happen at the moment is that scientists tend to think that the public is either misinformed or irrational on these questions. One of the things I put in my submission is quite a detailed analysis of where there is this junction in real, fundamental world views between scientists and the public. Probably there is not time to go into it now, but I would say that I think public opinion on this is very strongly against allowing this kind of research. I think even people who may have one of these disease conditions in their family, who will support medical research but will still have the kind of gut reaction against this kind of research.

  Q197  Chairman: Excuse me, you have no evidence for what you have just said, it is just your opinion?

  Dr King: Yes, it is my opinion. I think Government consultation on the review of the HFE Act is the best evidence we have got up to there, and that was fairly clear. I have done my own straw polling, of course, as we all have done.

  Q198  Dr Harris: In what way was it clear, the response to the Government's consultation?

  Dr King: From all the reports that I have seen of those consultation responses, there was a very strong majority against allowing this.

  Q199  Mr Newmark: There would be no progress if you went with the gut reaction of the public. The public, by definition, is conservative, you would never be putting money into science and you would never make any progress.

  Dr King: What I am trying to lay out in my submission is that gut reaction is based on some very sound intuitions about biology and about the importance of species barriers, which sadly, because scientists have a different world view, they do not share the public's view on the importance of species barriers.

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