IntroductionMembers of the Genomics Network research team issue comments on topics in the news.
After more than a year of deliberation, the HFEA has agreed to grant two research licences for the study of human-animal hybrid embryos, to the fury of some. According to The Guardian John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) said: "The HFEA decision represents a disastrous setback for human dignity in Britain . The deliberate blurring of the boundaries between humans and other species is wrong and strikes at the heart of what makes us human."
Egenis Senior Research Fellow Dr Christine Hauskeller is not surprised by such reactions. “The problem with current bioscience is that it engages in re-defining what it is to be human in terms of genetic manipulation and alterations of the human body. This is not generally perceived as desirable, but researchers and regulators often fail to address the political and ethical concerns raised.”
The original receipt of these applications presented the HFEA, in its own words, with a “particular challenge” and prompted it to begin a lengthy public consultation, while the media had sprung into action with headlines such as the Daily Star's “ Frankenbunny : Coming soon to a lab near you”.
Yet the concerns of the regulators and the public were not identical. Dr Hauskeller points out that the mixing of species, which is identified as the prime moral problem in the policy arena, is not what seems most to concern the public.
“Some respondents did express disgust at the mixing of human and animal material and creating ‘human-rabbit embryos', “says Dr Hauskeller. “However, when you examine the consultation you find that respondents more often express worries about ‘what might come next'. They say things such as ‘(It) starts somewhere and the next thing somebody else goes a bit further' and ‘It must be terribly, terribly tempting to go always that one (step further) to push the boundaries all the time, it really must be.' Many did not reject the suggested chimera research as such, but expressed concern about future practices in science.”
Dr Hauskeller rejects this logic of decline. “The doom-laden threat of a steady loss of certainty in human self-understanding and morality following chimera creation is a pseudo-argument. It is not supported by any evidence that human identity will be undermined and less valued because of acts such as this crossing of species in laboratories.”
Nonetheless, these arguments may express an important intuition. Scientists prefer to dismiss these ‘slippery-slope' arguments, where a particular action is identified as likely to cause unstoppable social decline and disaster, but they exemplify the gap between scientific practice and public understanding.
“What is expressed in the use of slippery-slope arguments is often a fundamental discomfort , which may be best described as fear of the scientific aim to manipulate all functions of the human body,” says Dr Hauskeller. “There is ambivalence, if not fear, about the fact that what was once deemed to be human nature and in the hands of fate is increasingly becoming malleable property in the hands of institutions with scientific and economic goals in mind. The public is concerned with general problems such as the attitude toward human life and human nature that is expressed in novel scientific inquiry. If those concerned about chimera research see it as only one example of the fundamental problem, that is , scientific control over human reproduction, then the decision of the HFEA to hold a consultation but then to pass the chimera proposals both reflects and misses these concerns at the same time.”
This is illustrated by another of John Smeaton's comments. “The HFEA says the public are at ease with the idea, but it's extremely doubtful whether people at large have had a real opportunity to consider the complex proposals adequately and to respond.” he said.
Dr Hauskeller is clear that the debate in public and on the policy level needs to be widened beyond single issues like chimera research. “What is needed is a general discussion about power and who controls life. Evolving bioscience offers routes to controlling human life in specific ways that are difficult to evaluate and therefore disconcerting. Reflection and decision-making should focus on this to pay respect to the concerns raised in public.”