The
creation of hybrid human-animal embryos for medical research, which
has just been approved by the British government’s fertility
watchdog, pushes the needle on the “yuck factor” meter far
into the red. But even more “yuck” is the deception and
manipulation used to justify the decision.

In
the United Kingdom, experiments with embryos are closely regulated by
the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. So when scientists
began to lobby for the creation of interspecies embryos in order to
create embryonic stem cells, the HFEA’s approval was required.

What
the scientists proposed was this: removing the nucleus of a human
cell and placing the genetic material into an empty cow egg, using
technology developed for cloning. The resulting “cybrid” is said to contain 99.9
per cent of a patient’s DNA and only 0.1 per cent of the cow’s. When it develops, embryonic stem cells
are extracted. These can be used for studying diseases, researching
genetics or testing drugs. The HFEA has stipulated that the embryo
must be destroyed within 14 days.

Scientists
would prefer to study cloned embryos which are created with women’s
eggs and 100 per cent human, but there is a huge obstacle. Thousands
upon thousands of eggs will be needed and almost no one is going to
volunteer her eggs for research. Payment is banned in the UK,
but would be prohibitively expensive in any case.

So
the alternative is to use animal eggs, even though the embryos will
contain the mitochondrial DNA which floats in the cells’ cytoplasm.
(That’s one reason why the HFEA calls these entities “cybrids”,
rather than hybrids. Strictly speaking, hybrids result from
combining animal sperm with a human egg, or vice versa, an even more
controversial step.)

Even
in the UK, which may have the world’s most progressive embryo legislation, creating and destroying human embryos for their stem cells
is controversial and the HFEA knew that cybrids had to be handled with care. So it conducted an inquiry, with focus
groups, a public meeting and an opinion poll. The result? Britons feel
“at
ease” with hybrid embryos.

Really? How much “at ease”? The HFEA’s own documents tell
a different story: “when further factual information was
provided and further discussion took place, the majority of
participants became more at ease with the idea, although as one
participant observed, ‘The gut reaction is hard to overcome'”.

In other words, only after extensive re-education
by the mandarins of a guided democracy could average Joes
stomach the thought of mingling human and animal
genetic material. Furthermore, the HFEA must have been wearing earplugs
during its public consultation. The view that all embryo research was
wrong was “overwhelmingly represented” in written
comments to the HFEA and “dominant” at its public meeting. 

Even the opinion poll involved some creative fudging. True, 61 per cent were in favour when told that the hybrids would help
scientists to understand diseases, but 22 per cent had never even heard that such a
thing was possible. And, to pick one amongst many figures, only 32 per cent
were unconcerned about what scientists might do next if they were
allowed to create hybrids. Those who were most concerned, in fact,
were those who were best informed.

Not for nothing, it seems, is the chairwoman of the HFEA, Shirley
Harrison, a lecturer in public relations with two books on the art
of spin-doctoring to her credit.

If the results of its own “public dialogue” required such vigorous chiropracty in order to interpret them as public “ease” with human-animal
hybrids, how about its ethical analysis?

Well,
research on human embryos has been legal in the UK for some time, so
objections on that score were irrelevant. But blending human and animal
genetic material adds a new wrinkle to the debate. How about the “yuck
factor”? Simple disgust is not a genuine moral objection, sniffed the HFEA.
In any case, no British scientists have ever sought permission to
create the half-human, half-beast monsters in H.G. Wells’s sci fi classic The Island of Dr Moreau. Excessive sensitivity to primitive taboos might stifle scientific progress.

How
about human dignity? The HFEA documents do not make it clear whether it
believes that “human dignity” is a meaningful concept. (In fact, many
contemporary bioethicists do not.) “Moral rejections tend to rely upon a
species distinction between animals and humans, but it is unclear
whether such a distinction can be maintained,” says the HFEA.
So what’s the problem with a bit of animal DNA in an embryo? 

Scepticism
about human dignity sounds odd in a government document, as most people
in a democracy regard this this as the foundation of human rights. Surely a
bright line between humans and animals is required to deny suffrage to
guinea pigs. One would have thought that bureaucrats in the UK, in
particular, would have thought a bit harder about this. Before the rise
of Islamic terrorism, animal rights extremism used to be the most
serious police challenge in the country.

All in all, the HFEA’s arguments to support the radical step of authorising the creation of human embryos contaminated with animal DNA don’t stack up. Which
shows that everyone, even many supporters of embryo research, has reason to
worry. With its
self-serving opinion polling and its shoddy ethical analysis, is there
anything the HFEA will not approve if scientists ask for it?

Probably
not. The HFEA’s guiding principle has always been adamant opposition to all violations
of human dignity which are not currently on scientists’ shopping lists.
No scientists have sought permission to extend the lives of their
embryos beyond 14 days, so the HFEA opposes it. No scientists have
sought permission to mingle animal sperm with human eggs, so the HFEA
opposes it. No scientists have sought to implant a hybrid embryo in a
woman’s womb and bring it to term, so the HFEA opposes it.

But scientific inquiry may someday take these paths. That’s the way science works. As Dr Moreau explained in the novel:

“You
see,  I went on with this research just the way it led me.
That is the only way I ever heard of true research going.
I asked a question, devised some method of obtaining an answer,
and got a fresh question. Was this possible or that possible?
You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator,
what an intellectual passion grows upon him! You cannot imagine
the strange, colourless delight of these intellectual desires!… To
this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter.”

No scientists have sought permission to reproduce Dr Moreau’s experiments, thank goodness. But when they do, the HFEA is sure to announce that the public is “at ease” with them. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.