On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for DNA


The UK’s leading medical research group says that creating hybrid embryos from empty animal eggs and human genetic material is “vital” for the fight against disease. As usual, media reports stressed that the resulting cell would be 99.9% human and only 0.1% animal. “There are no substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed with research on human embryos containing animal material under the [current] framework of regulatory control,” says Professor Martin Bobrow, a spokesman for the Academy of Medical Sciences.The Academy’s support for the Blair government’s overhaul of fertility legislation was essentially old news. However, astonishingly, Professor Bobrow also advocated creating true hybrids by mixing human and animal gametes. (These would be destroyed within 14 days, of course, as is currently the practice.) This scenario, when mooted by opponents of therapeutic cloning, has consistently been ridiculed as an absurd fantasy by science journalists and researchers. However, it is clearly on the Academy’s agenda.

“We found no current scientific reasons to generate ‘true’ hybrid embryos by mixing human and animal gametes,” the report said. “However, given the speed of this field of research, the working group could not rule out the emergence of scientifically valid reasons in the future.” This may be the first time that this controversial possibility has been flagged publicly by a leading scientist.

The report prepares the ground for these developments by dismissing ethical objections against human-animal hybrids. For one thing, it is not contrary to human dignity, because human dignity this does not exist. The Academy seems to have been paging through Peter Singer’s ruminations on “speciesism”: “On a more fundamental level, we judge it unlikely that ‘human dignity’… derives simply from species membership. If the concept of ‘human dignity’ has content, it is because there are factors of form, function or behaviour that confer such dignity or command respect.

“Either hybrid creatures would also possess these factors or they would not. If they do possess these factors, they would also have a specific type of dignity analogous or identical to human dignity that other creatures lack; if not, they would not. Either way, the distinction between creatures that possess dignity and those that do not remains as it is now,” says the report.

Dipping their toes into the “wisdom of repugance” debate, the Academy dismisses the notion of “unnaturalness” as a reason for banning hybrids. “Not only is it very difficult to specify what unnatural’ means, but it is not clear why ‘unnaturalness’ should be bad; IVF is an ‘unnatural’ process, but it has few contemporary opponents. Vaccination and antibiotic therapy, and nearly all of modern medicine, represent a scientifically informed intervention in nature.” ~ BBC, Jun 17   



Artificial life is around the corner, says gene pioneer Craig Venter. His project of creating a “minimal bacterial genome” is only weeks or months away from completion. He calls it “one of the bright milestones in history, changing our conceptual view of life”.

And he has applied for a patent, as synthetic life could have a huge number of industrial applications. His company, Synthetic Genomics, recently partnered with energy giant BP to make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen from coal or oil: “potential to provide all the transportation fuel we need in the US,” says Venter.

What Venter has done is to take a very simple bacterium with 470 genes, Mycoplasma genitalium, and knock out each of them to find the minimum needed to sustain life. Apparently there are 381 of these. Theoretically a string of DNA with these genes can be synthesised and placed inside a “ghost cell” consisting of a membrane and some cell machinery. Voila! — Synthia, as the bug has been dubbed.

But artificial life sends shivers up and down the spine of some ethicists and scientists. The ETC Group, a Canadian watchdog organisation spotted Venter’s patent application recently and has asked him to withdraw it as contrary to public morality and safety. There are areas where mankind should not meddle, it says. “We don’t own life, life owns us,” saysMargaret Somerville, a Canadian bioethicist.

But there are more down to earth reasons, as well. Bioterrorists could create pathogens. Or a patent on a synthetic organism could make Venter’s company the “Microbesoft” of synthetic biology, according to ETC. ~ Economist, Jun 16; Business Week, June 25  




Boffins in Britain’s Ministry of Defence have been busy compiling possible strategic threats over the next 30 years. Amongst the gloomy scenarios described in a source document for the development of UK Defence Policy are a number of bioethical issues. Here are a few of the highlights:Bioethics: “A more permissive R&D environment could accelerate the decline of ethical constraints and restraints. The speed of technological and cultural change could overwhelm society’s ability to absorb the ethical implications and to develop and apply national and international regulatory and legal controls. Such a regulatory vacuum would be reinforcing as states and commercial organisations race to develop and exploit economic, political and military advantage. The nearest approximation to an ethical framework could become a form of secular utilitarianism, in an otherwise amoral scientific culture.” Brain broadcasts: who will need a Blackberry when a chip could be implanted in the brain itself by the year 2035? Information and entertainment could be beamed directly to consumers’ senses. The possibility of “synthetic telepathy” seems remote, but it’s there on the MOD’s lists of possibilities. It has a number of useful applications in the military — and at the ballot box. 

Human enhancement: “The application of advanced genetics could challenge current assumptions about human nature and existence. Initially employed for medical purposes, breakthroughs in these areas could be put to ethically questionable uses, such as the super-enhancement of human attributes, including physical strength and sensory perception. Extreme variation in attributes could arise between individuals, or where enhancement becomes a matter of fashion, between societies, creating additional reasons for conflict.”

Longevity: The report foresees that people who can afford it will live much longer, with possibly negative political consequences: “The divide between those that could afford to ‘buy longevity’ and those that could not, could aggravate perceived global inequality.” ~ Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, UK Ministry of Defence


An Austrian court is studying whether a 26-year-old chimpanzee should be given human rights and treated as an asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone. Hiasl, a lively and affectionate animal who recognises himself in a mirror and plays hide-and-seek, would be saved from a vivisection laboratory if the court appoints a human guardian for him. His supporters contend that he is equivalent to a human. They argue that a chimp’s DNA is about 98% similar to a ours. They can use tools and have an emotional life.Animal experts are queuing up to support the case. Professor Volker Sommer, a chimp expert at University College London, says that “It’s untenable to talk of dividing humans and humanoid apes because there are no clear-cut criteria, neither biological, nor mental, nor social.”

However, Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at the University of London, counters that it is absurd to speak of human rights for the great apes. “Where do you stop?” he asked the BBC. “Being human is unique and nothing to do with biology. Say that apes share 98% of human DNA and therefore should have 98% of human rights. Well, mice share 90% of human DNA. Should they get 90% of human rights? And plants have more DNA than humans…” ~ BBC, Mar 29; Observer, Apr 1