Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council
Confirmation that biologists working for a private company in Australia, Stem Cell Sciences, have experimented with inserting human genetic material into the ova of pigs to produce animal-human hybrid embryos, will shock Australians into demanding, at the least, a moratorium on further experimentation of this type. Such experimentation is the ultimate in utilitarianism.
Where laws regulating biotechnology exist in Australia, for example, in relation to In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), they envisage reproduction using human sex cells. The latest research bypasses these laws by combining human and pig cells to create a hybrid.
The company involved in this research claimed that it might enable the production of human stem cells from the human-pig hybrid embryos.
Human stem cells are of great interest to medical science, because they have the capacity to develop into the range of cells found in different parts of the human body, for example, in muscle, bone and nerve.
Using stem cells, it is argued, could assist treatment for diabetes, spinal cord injury, and certain neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and the muscular dystrophies.
This is the foundation of support given by the US President, Bill Clinton, into the creation of human embryos for scientific experimentation. President Clinton claimed that the new technology had “breathtaking promise”, and added, “We cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives.”
The US National Institute of Health is now funding research using human embryo stem cells, and Britain’s Blair Government has indicated that it will also legislate to permit cloning human embryos for “therapeutic” purposes, a polite way of saying that such human embryos will be used and then destroyed.
A society which condones the destruction of unborn human beings by abortion is unlikely to draw the line at the destruction of early human embryos.
However, there is growing evidence that stem cell harvesting from human embryos may be unnecessary. It appears that other types of stem cells occur naturally in the human body and may be used ethically to grow new tissues and organs. This would also overcome the problem of organ rejection, which continues to limit the availability of organ donation.
The experimentation undertaken by Stem Cell Sciences takes this process in a different direction. The human-animal hybrid is genetically different from either of the original sources, so any suggestion that cells from such hybrids would produce human stem cells is, biologically, questionable.
What we are left with is the fact that medical scientists are taking us into areas where society has never before ventured, raising fundamental ethical issues which have not been addressed.
A statement by the Chief Executive Officer of Stem Cell Sciences that the embryos, which had been grown to the 32-cell stage, would not develop into a pig-human hybrid, are disingenuous. The fact is that biologically, it is a pig-human hybrid.
Over the past few months, Australia has witnessed a major outcry over a recent Federal Court judgment which ruled that state infertility laws limiting access to IVF services to married couples were inconsistent with the Federal Sex Discrimination Act.
At the time, the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, immediately foreshadowed amending the Federal Act to entrench state laws on the issue. The legislation has yet to go before Federal Parliament.
The scientific imperative which is driving the technology for the creation of human-animal hybrids raises fundamental questions about what it is to be a human person, and what differentiates mankind from animals.
The risks inherent in the scientific revolution, applied to human biology, were discussed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, first published in 1932. It envisaged a future world founded on artificial birth and no family life, a society designed by genetic engineering.
The latest proposals go beyond the nightmare world envisaged by Huxley, although their proponents continue to put forward the argument that all this is justified because it might open up forms of treatment of certain human diseases.
Yet all of these possible benefits lie somewhere in the distant future, while medical scientists push the barriers further, with even more bizarre medical experiments, which have been subjected to no community consultation to determine where the ethical boundaries should be drawn.
The latest experiments fall within the scope of the Senate Gene Technology Committee inquiry, and another inquiry being conducted by a House of Representatives Committee.
In light of the Prime Minister’s decision to IVF, it would be entirely appropriate that he sponsor a move to put a ban on human embryo experimentation, at least until the matter can be properly considered from both the scientific and ethical perspectives.
If nothing is done, it will effectively legalise the experimentation currently being undertaken.