The Cow-man Cometh

God knows (literally) the mess we have in this country on bioethics issues. From fake state cloning bans to the spectacle of President Bush’s director of the NIH recently arguing before Congress in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, the United States is far from being a paragon of bioethics virtue. But our problems pale in comparison to those of the country with whom we share a “special relationship,” Great Britain.

It is true that the U.K. is not (quite) as bad as the U.S. is on abortion at present (see below). But on the issues that are usually considered to be “bioethics” issues – cloning, stem cell research, genetic engineering, etc – the mother country is far worse. A world leader, in fact, in being bad. For instance, the U.K. was the first to legislate for, and heavily to promote, human cloning.

Recently, Great Britain has been embroiled in a debate in Parliament over the renewal of, and rules governing, the Human Fertilization and Embryology (“HFE”) authority, a body overseeing all these issues and more. The renewal had been recommended by a parliamentary committee with some changes to existing rules. Thus, during the debate in Parliament, pro-life members sought to reverse, or diminish the effect of, those changes. They failed on all counts. For example, the prior HFE Act had required that the importance of having a father be taken into account in IVF “treatments;” that was removed in the new bill; and the amendment to restore it was defeated. Likewise, a proposal to add a new requirement that mothers who had been informed their baby has the risk of a genetic defect be offered information on sources of assistance, counseling, etc, was defeated. (Abortion for reasons of genetic defect may occur at any time during pregnancy in the U.K.) Amendments to reduce the time period for abortion for “social reasons” from 24 weeks to something closer to the European norm of 12 weeks were soundly defeated. It should be noted that some British pro-lifers opposed offering amendments for precisely this reason – the votes were against us on every issue. Still, some see in the margin of the vote (3 to 2 on some issues) reason to hope that in the future the tide may be turned.

One must note, of course, the brouhaha that erupted, including from Catholic members of his party, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would require a straight-party-line vote, i.e., that Labour members of Parliament would be required to vote for the government’s bill, despite any pangs of conscience. Eventually, he backed down and permitted members to vote their conscience. But he still received strong approval for the most controversial recommendation of all – the creation of human/animal hybrids.

This issue had been percolating for over a year. The HFE authority had commissioned a study and public consultation and ended up recommending “only” what it called “cybrids,” that is, embryos created by inserting a human nucleus into an animal ooctye or “egg” cell from which the animal nucleus had been removed, a process we usually call “cloning.” The HFE authority had considered but rejected recommending hybrid embryo research (the mixing of animal and human gametes); human chimera embryo research (human embryos with animal cells added to them in early development); animal chimera embryo research (animal embryos with human cells added); and transgenic human embryo research (human embryos with animal genes inserted into them during early development).

The cybrid is almost entirely human, but almost entirely. It still contains animal DNA in the cytoplasm that surrounds the nucleus, called mitochondrial DNA. Thus, the new being – which comes to life instantly, remember, at the single cell stage of embryonic life – is a true, living human/animal combination. The HFE authority had in fact issued two licenses to produce such beings. Throughout the debate, there was the implicit premise by proponents of the bill that “it” is not really a living human/animal hybrid being because, well, it’s small and young, thereby repeating the familiar claim in the debates here that somehow one only becomes a human being when one has lived long enough to qualify (purely circular reasoning if one ever saw it).

Now, why would anyone want to produce such cybrids? For research, British proponents assured us, for research; no one wants a cow/man walking around! Yet, when prominent researchers from around the world wrote a public letter to The London Times before the vote noting that few, if any, researchers believed we will learn anything useful for treating human aliments from such human/animal hybrids (no one really understands how the mitochondrial DNA affects the nuclear DNA and thus cannot “control” for this effect in cybrids), they were ignored.

When one M.P. offered an amendment to ban what we were assured by the bill’s proponents “everyone” opposes, i.e., true hybrids (that is, embryos formed by the mixture of human sperm and animal eggs), that amendment was soundly defeated 336-176! Did some of those voters think there might, indeed, come a day when we might have/make use of such a thing?

Today, it appears that the Promethean temptation to “do it because we can” is stronger on the other side of the Atlantic than it is here. But given our own refusal to think ethically about bioethics, what prevents it – and human/animal hybrids – from crossing the pond?

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.