The UK Government, along with a number of organisations and research institutions involved in funding or carrying out destructive embryo research in the UK, have not just been taken by surprise but flat footed by the outcome of a new EU citizens’ initiative.
The UK likes to see itself at the forefront of world biomedical research; in many ways it is. For example, the UK is spearheading the drive to be the first and only country in the world to permit germ line genetic engineering by creating three parent embryos.
However this drive has led it to abandoning some basic ethical principles, leading it to be seen by many other countries as a maverick.
Its enthusiasm for embryo research with no real strings attached is not shared by well over 1.8 million citizens across Europe.
Now it faces a new European ‘citizens’ initiative’ set up to encourage greater democratic participation in Europe.
This initiative means that if a piece of proposed legislation can be backed by at least one million EU citizens, from at least 7 out of the 27 member states, then the European Commission must debate and decide whether to adopt the legislation or not.
Ignoring a request that is widely supported across Europe would be a serious loss of credibility for the EU institutions.
A proposal, the ‘One of Us’ Citizens’ Initiative, to prevent the use of public (not private) EU funding of research that destroys embryos (this is nothing to do with abortion) in just a few months garnered well over the required minimum signatures of one million.
Support has crossed the minimum threshold in 18 Member States: Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain (note, not the UK).
Millions of European citizens are simply asking that human rights are recognised from the moment of conception.
It is no surprise then that the funders and users of destructive embryo research are getting worried.
That is why they are calling on the European lawmakers to oppose ‘One of Us’ despite its widespread support, claiming that such a ban would have a negative impact on research involving human embryos for regenerative medicine, reproductive health and genetic disease.
Now it transpires that our own Government is also trying to undermine this initiative by briefing against the proposal behind the scenes.
A confidential UK briefing note to European lawmakers, marked as ‘Official Sensitive’, encourages them to ignore the wishes of over 1.8 million EU citizens. This secret briefing does not have the support of any votes.
There is no doubt that there are huge economic interests behind the use of embryos in research. Despite significant investment very few therapies have resulted.
Yet there are alternatives; namely using adult stem cells and cell reprogramming to generate embryo-like stem cells – alternatives offer ethical options for research and therapies, which do not involve destruction of human embryos.
As a recent New Scientist article shows, ethical stem cell research is opening more and more doors whilst research using embryos is foundering.
One of the greatest pioneers in this area of research, Dr Yamanaka of Kyoto University, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2012 for his highly successful work on stem cells.
But as the New York Times has reported, his success did not just come from his work on embryos but because he actually saw for himself that it was both unethical and unnecessary:
‘(Yamanaka) looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career.
“When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realised there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, a father of two and a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”’
He found another way to proceed with his research. Even Julian Savulescu, the controversial and liberal bioethicist at Oxford University, has had to admit that Yamanaka has achieved his great scientific advances within an ethical framework:
‘Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research…he deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine but a Nobel Prize for Ethics’.
The new ‘One of Us’ European wide initiative, apparently so disliked by our own Government, is not calling for the end of research per se but the end of unethical embryo research. As Yamanaka surely shows new horizons can and will open. Better solutions will come.
Let’s hope then that European lawmakers stand up to our Government’s bullying and to the heavily vested financial interests in destroying embryos for research, and their use of public funds in the process.
As one of the 1.8 million citizens protesting against this abuse of taxpayer money I want research to continue but within ethical boundaries.
Like Yamanaka successfully proved, great advances can come in this way. Indeed, perhaps they come not despite but because of respect for ethical boundaries.