Embryos

We live in a brave new world. Take the recent story all about the 14 day limit on keeping human embryos alive in a laboratory. Scientists have recently managed to grow human embryos and keep them alive for an unprecedented 13 days, right up to the legal limit. Cue the inevitable calls for the limit to be removed to allow for further experimentation. Story after story was filled with scientists and professors urging this ‘outdated’ legal limit be done away with. One bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania said: “I don’t see anything sacred in the 14 days.”

Scientific advances are pushing ethical boundaries left, right and centre. Yet increasingly it seems this new world has little time for moral and ethical arguments. This means the very sanctity of human life is under threat. The allure of being the first to pioneer a scientific first, or create a new cure is very powerful. Science provides many wonderful opportunities to understand our world and the human body better. But the growing pattern here in the UK is to breeze past ethical boundaries in pursuit of global acclaim. This attitude towards complex ethical debates is extremely dangerous. It is critical that amidst a flurry of ‘breakthroughs’, moral and ethical concerns are not simply swept under the carpet. The very nature of scientific advance must be chiefly informed by moral arguments to prevent us from going too far.

Seeing ’nothing sacred in the 14 days’ reflects the attitude of many people today who think a human embryo is a mere collection of cells and its lack of special status in the eyes of policy makers. This was not always the case. In 1984,  Baroness Warnock (one of the main architects of the UK embryology legislation) commented in her report that led to the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, that the embryo “ought to have a special status” under UK law. Sadly, in 2002 she publically changed her mind saying “I regret that in the original report that led up to the 1990 legislation we used words such as ‘respect for the embryo’”.

Last year, CARE submitted a Freedom of Information Request which revealed between 2011 and 2014 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) discarded 628,585 human embryos used in IVF technology. That means more than 600,000 potential lives thrown away in just four years. You cannot argue that such destruction is justified on the grounds that they served a “greater good”. For some, human embryos carry an intrinsic value and discarding human embryos in this cavalier fashion is deeply wrong.

In the last 18 months alone, we have seen major ethical boundaries crossed. In February 2015, MPs approved legislation that permits the creation of three-parent babies despite a serious lack of knowledge as to the consequences of doing so. Many MPs came under severe pressure from a loud and vocal scientific lobby who were determined to have their way. Then, a year later, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London were told they could start editing human genes. Despite concerns that this would open the door to designer babies, once again these crucial moral arguments were dismissed. Only a few months before the HFEA gave the green light, more than 100 leading international scientists had signed a letter urging a halt to the editing of human genes. But again, the voice of caution was ignored. Another significant ethical barrier was smashed without anything more than lip service to critical moral arguments against the editing of the human gene. In recent years, this has become a depressingly familiar pattern. What suffers as a result of this recklessness is the sanctity of life itself.

I’m not opposing scientific advance for the sake of opposing it. But when human embryos are being used and abused, this immediately raises the stakes. Advocates of ever more rapid advance need to understand that there are lines in the sand that no decent society should ever cross. Sadly in the UK today, even when evidence is presented to show some of these new, ethically questionable techniques and experiments might not actually work, these concerns are just ignored. While there are scientists who are willing to listen to the voice of caution, there are others who want to push past any ethical concerns and ignore moral voices urging caution in order to achieve ‘pioneering’ and global acclaim.

But moral and ethical arguments must be heard and properly engaged with if scientific advance is to be safeguarded from opening Pandora’s Box. There needs to be voice speaking up for the unborn and the vulnerable or else, the alarming prospect of a society where people can design babies and edit their characteristics will become a reality. The moral voice of caution should not be ignored. This is not about being anti-science but society and the scientific community in particular must recognise that bioethics must have boundaries. Without these boundaries, who knows what future awaits us.

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