Monday, 12 May 2008

"However I am opposed to lion-goat-snakes..."

The House of Commons are currently debating some changes to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 1990. The principle concern of campaigners against the changes to the bill is the change to ‘chimera’ legislation. A so-called chimera is an embryo created from human and animal DNA. These embryos are only ever kept for fourteen days and so have no chance of development at all. The reason for their creation is to harvest their precious stem cells – cells which can then be used to create virtually any kind of tissue we need. The benefits to these stem cells go without saying.

Opposition to chimera-creation occurs chiefly for moral reasons: protesters cite issues with human dignity, the creation of life for our own egoistic purposes, the subsequent disposal of them, and a general concern that medical science goes too far. The Catholic Church especially has taken issue with the bill for reasons of morality specifically their Western-based morals of Christianity.

The phrase ‘human dignity’ is thrown around a lot in this debate. It presumably means that human life is too precious to mix with animal DNA or that human cells should not be used so glibly by scientists. Putting aside the debates over whether humanity has earned the mantle of ‘dignified’ and how anthropocentric it is to implicitly assume that humans are of more worth than animals, the phrase can be used in a different sense. One has to remember that these chimeras (along with unborn foetuses) are not humans and so, by definition, cannot have human dignity – foetuses are more contentious but chimera embryos are definitely not human. Humans are the poor people suffering from ailments that could be cured if only certain medical research was allowed. The humans who lose their dignity are the ones who suffer day-to-day with diseases that could be eradicated if only a few people set aside their discomfort at the idea of embryonic stem cell research.

Morality is a tricky concept and sadly a great deal of the time hard and fast rules don’t work. A lot of the time moral choices come down to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis and, in this particular case, the suffering of humans around the world with debilitating diseases vastly outweighs the non-suffering a non-human embryo. The moral choice is obvious and advancing scientific research by allowing changes to the bill is the most reasonable option. From my understanding the only moral imperative that really matters in Christianity is the traditional Golden Rule laid down by Jesus himself: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Nothing else matters morally – especially not the stuff handed down from the Old Testament. If I was suffering I would want to allow non-harmful research that could save my life. The least I can do for someone is to not stand in the way of medical advancement.

This is not to say that scientific bodies should not be regulated: it’s the job of scientists to do things and advance technology, not to ask ‘why’ or ‘should we’. Someone else needs to do that for them. While we need to make sure that is done and that animals or humans are not made to suffer unduly, we only need to step in with genuine moral concerns; not mere squeamishness about stem cells and embryos. That is why opposition to these changes for the sake of an ancient and arbitrary morality is immoral itself and detrimental to the whole species.

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