UK: House of Commons Passes Bill that Permits Hybrid Animal-Human Embryo Creation

Also see: "Human-Animal Synthetic Organisms: Asymmetric Threats"

Frankenstein Science


May 22, 2008

LONDON — The name of Frankenstein should not be lightly invoked in the context of science. But the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill, which the British Parliament has been debating this week, really does deserve the accusation of "Frankenstein science" that has been levelled against it — most notably by the Archbishop of St. Andrews in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien.

The bill permits the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos and the selection of embryos to serve as "saviour siblings," both of which are illegal in most of the world. The bill also abolishes the legal requirement that in vitro fertilisation treatment should only be given if the child's need for a father is taken into account.

But in a series of votes this week, the House of Commons decided by large majorities to pass the bill. The House also rejected amendments by pro-lifers that would have lowered the legal limit on abortions from 24 weeks to 22 or even 12 weeks.

Taken together, these changes to the law will mean that Britain has taken a big step toward parting company from the Jewish and Christian conceptions of what it is to be human. "This Bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life," Cardinal O'Brien recently said. "In some other European countries, one could be jailed for doing what we intend to make legal."

Why has Britain gone out on a limb? In the first place, the scientists who are pressing for ethical limitations to be removed on what is done with embryonic stem cells have drowned out other voices in the scientific community who question the justification for such potentially dangerous experiments.

An impressive list of 17 stem cell scientists from around the world wrote a letter to the London Times last week, protesting that there is no scientific case for creating hybrid animal-human embryos, adding that "we remain unaware of any cogent evidence suggesting any [of these hybrids] might yield significant therapeutic dividend."

Yet Prime Minister Brown told the nation that such speculative research was "an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and, over time, millions of people." Such extravagant claims cannot be justified by the facts.

Yet the British press uniformly presented the debate as a battle between "science" and "religion" — even though there is nothing specifically religious about respect for the integrity of our humanity, and abhorrence at the notion of the cross-fertilisation of human beings with other species.

Britain, in short, has opted to go down the path that leads to full-scale eugenics. To do this, we shall have to jettison all ethical traditions, not only that which goes back to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

As the moral philosopher John Haldane observed yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, "ethics is structured by an asymmetry between protecting and promoting values. The prior obligation is to do no harm, and only when that injunction is met should one turn to promoting benefits." If we abandon this principle, which has been held by moralists of all religions and none, we risk sacrificing individuals or minorities for the sake of some notional gain for the majority.

The Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill enshrines the amoral principle that the end justifies the means. In fact, the bill ought not to have the word "human" in its title, for it amounts to an attack on humanity, in favor of a Nietzschean Übermensch, or superman.

How has this come about? Scientific arrogance and moral myopia have played their part, but no less important has been sentimentality. Both Gordon Brown and his Conservative rival David Cameron are fathers of severely disabled children: Mr. Brown's child was born with cystic fibrosis, while Mr. Cameron's is severely autistic. They and their families deserve, and receive, the nation's sympathy in their various predicaments.

The spectacle of a child with an incurable condition is almost more than flesh and blood can bear. Yet to allow the personal circumstances and hopes of the two leading politicians in the country to determine public policy, particularly if that means forcing through a law with such far-reaching ethical implications, is quite wrong.

Both men voted for the bill. In Mr. Brown's case it was only after much arm-twisting, and at the 11th hour that he permitted Members of Parliament to vote according to their consciences, as has always been the convention in the past under Britain's unwritten constitution.

Frankenstein's monster — or "creature," as it is more properly called — should have the last word. A leader of the resistance to the bill, the Tory elder statesman Edward Leigh, quoted the piteous speech that Mary Shelley puts into the mouth of the monstrous product of scientific hubris: "I the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on." In the end, the creature takes revenge on its creator.

By analogy, if the British abandon any coherent idea of what it is to be human in favor of a ruthlessly utilitarian eugenics, they will be punished by the loss of that moral authority which they once enjoyed in the eyes of the world.

Scientific freedom is infinitely precious, but it is not absolute; in a civilized country, it is tempered by the dignity and sanctity of human life. By that standard, Britain is no longer a civilized country.

Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint.

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