Last month, British MPs helped make H.G. Wells’s 1896 horror story, The Island of Dr Moreau, become reality. Tim Cannon reports.
In his 1896 classic, The Island of Dr Moreau, H.G. Wells artfully blends science-fiction and horror, weaving a cautionary tale of a doctor hell-bent on creating human-animal hybrids.
Today, the science and the horror remain. Unfortunately, they are fiction no more.
Last month, British MPs cleared the way for the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos. Amid tumultuous applause from the media and scientific community, a bill seeking to outlaw hybrid embryos was defeated by a majority of 168 votes in the House of Commons. In the interests of shoring up supplies of embryos, scientists may now transfer the nuclei from human cells into the ova of animals, to produce living cloned embryos — part human, part animal — ripe for experimentation.
The wilful blindness of so many politicians, journalists and members of the scientific community to obvious ethical issues raised by the practice is deeply disappointing. But, according to Dr David van Gend, national director of Australians for Ethical Stem-Cell Research, giving the green light to hybrids merely plunges the already languishing ethical standards of the stem-cell research lobby to new lows.
Says Dr van Gend: “Cloning has always been a sick science, in that it creates living human embryos solely to be exploited in the laboratory. Now, the UK has descended to the level of obscenity, breeding human embryos where instead of a human mother they use the egg of a pig or rabbit.”
That embryonic research and cloning have been rendered obsolete by the development of more effective techniques simply compounds the sense of frustration. As Dr van Gend points out, “The rest of the world knows that cloning as a serious science died back in November , with the scientific revolution of ‘direct reprogramming’ of adult cells to the status of an embryonic stem cell. That technique never uses women’s eggs, and never creates embryos.
“Even the King of Cloning, the UK’s Ian Wilmut [creator of Dolly the sheep], declared in November last year that he was walking away from cloning in favour of ‘direct reprogramming’, and many of the leading scientists around the world have done the same.”
But while Old Mother England happily leaves her scientists to toy with human embryos at their leisure, defenders of ethical medical research have achieved an astonishing victory in Western Australia. There, legislation which would allow the cloning of human embryos for research — such as was passed in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania last year — was rejected in the upper house on May 6.
It was a hard fought victory, says Deirdre Lyra, secretary of the Australian Family Association in WA, but one that “vindicates the ethical stand taken by Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Barry Hickey, who courted parliamentary censure [by publicly opposing the legislation]…”.
What’s more, the historic vote gave voice to those members of the community who for decades have worked to ensure that the harrowing realities at the heart of human embryonic experimentation are not covered up in the frenzied race to conquer disease. It is a message wantonly ignored by cloning advocates within the scientific community and in the mainstream media.
In fact, the defeat of the WA cloning bill received scant attention in the press, none of it positive. Online daily, Perth Now, reported the vote under the heading, “Sick denied cures with defeat of cloning bill” (May 8). In a similar vein, The Australian gave WA Attorney-General and Health Minister Jim McGinty free rein to vent his anger at the failure of the bill, which he described as “a bitter blow for people with life-threatening conditions”. He went on to blame the outcome on a conspiratorial “conservative bloc in the upper house”, whose obstinate behaviour “added to the weight of calls for an early election…” (May 8).
To insinuate, as McGinty did, that the members of parliament who opposed the bill are somehow opposed to the development of treatments and cures for people with “life-threatening conditions” is unconscionably disingenuous. It is tantamount to alleging that anyone who stops a poor man from robbing a bank must be opposed to the alleviation of poverty.
South Australia next
With WA bucking the trend, attention now turns to South Australia, where parliament is expected to consider a similar cloning bill in the coming months. As in WA, opposition to the bill — which was tabled in October of 2007 — is reported to be strong.
Time will tell, but for now we can simply hope that in the inevitable media debate, a modicum of respect is afforded those who with good reason object to human cloning and experimentation no matter how useful it might be.
— Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.