On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

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JUST A COINCIDENCE?

There was excitement, too, on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, over the stunning new research, which appeared in the journal Nature just before the House of Representatives voted to loosen restrictions imposed by President Bush on funding for embryonic stem cell research. In any case it came too late to influence the passage of the bill, which failed to get the numbers required to override the expected presidential veto.Was it just a coincidence? Some legislators thought not. “It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, ‘You don’t have to do stem cell research,'” says Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. “Convenient timing,” said bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

However, the Washington Post consulted experts on probability. Happenstance — or an underhanded plot to sink the bill? Skulduggery by American opponents of stem cell research? By rival British researchers bent on world domination? The experts backed coincidence. “Papers are coming out about embryonic stem cells so regularly that the odds are going to be high that some will come out when Congress is voting on them,” says David Ropeik, a Harvard expert in risk assessment. ~ Washington Post, Jun 10

COMMERCIAL SURROGACY IN CHINA

In the absence of clear legislation, a Chinese entrepreneur has set up a nationwide network of surrogacy offices, with more than 120 surrogate mothers. Liu Baojin, the 28-year-old founder of daiyun.com, says that surrogacy is ethical and legal in China. He says that he gets at least 10,000 yuan for each successful match. The surrogate mother, if educated, could earn about 70,000. 

However, since Chinese law does prohibit IVF clinics from engaging in surrogacy, Mr Liu’s surrogate pregnancies are achieved in the old-fashioned way, leaving him open to criticism for immorality. Liu Zhijun, a sociologist at Zhejiang University, says that surrogacy corrupts social morals and violates human rights. It often ends in tragedy, with extra-marital affairs, family disputes and even crime. ~ China Daily, May 15

UK TO LOOSEN FERTILITY CONTROLS

 

 

British House of CommonsAfter months of consultation, the British government has released a draft overhaul of its contentious fertility legislation. Many significant changes have been made, but the bellwether issue is the creation of chimeras, or hybrid animal-human embryos. Although there had been signs that the government would ban these, the proposed legislation allows them. Health Minister Caroline Flint denied that it had caved in to pressure from scientists and patient groups. She said that the government always wanted to leave the door open to such research and that scientists had made a strong case for it.Scientists were pleased, although Dr Stephen Minger, head of the stem cell team at King’s College London, lamented that Parliament was too involved. Only scientific and ethical experts were competent to regulate the fast-moving field of embryonic research. “This system of a panel of scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and informed lay members… has always worked perfectly well. It’s the only way to do it. What we definitely want to avoid is government trying to legalise science,” he commented.

Opponents were scathing. Josephine Quintavalle, of the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said bluntly: “It is appalling that the government has bowed to pressure from the random collection of self-interested scientists and change its prohibitive stance. This is a highly controversial and terrifying proposal, which has little justification in science and even less in ethics. Endorsement by the UK government will elicit horror in Europe and right across the wider world.”

The possibility of creating hybrid embryos was just one amongst many proposals which would have seemed radical when the 1991 decision was first made to permit embryo research and establish the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. These include: 

* A child can be created without a legal father, but two legal mothers. Children do not necessarily need a father in IVF procedures. 
* Embryos can be screened for serious medical conditions. 
* Eggs or sperm can be removed from incompetent persons without their consent. 
* Not-for-profit surrogacy agencies will be able to charge reasonable expenses for organising surrogate mothers.

Although the list of procedures which the government proposes to legalise and regulate is long, a few are explicitly banned. Sex selection is still on the black list, as are artificial gametes, genetic modification of IVF embryos and deliberately selecting a disease or disorder (such as deaf parents choosing to have a deaf child). ~ BBC, May 17; Guardian, May 17 

D-DAY FOR EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS

D-Day is approaching for embryonic stem cells, says the CEO of Geron, Tom Okarma. The world’s first clinical trial will begin early next year on patients with spinal cord injury in six trauma centres across the US.

Because of the intense scrutiny that these trials are sure to receive from the US Food and Drug Administration, from the media, and from hostile critics of the ethically contentious technology, extensive preparatory work has taken place. Animal tests have already showed that nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells can repair spinal cord injuries in rats. “Paralysed rats can walk again,” says the Financial Times, although this has been disputed by critics.

Mr Okarma claims that rapid progress has been made since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. Even more ground could have been covered except for the intransigence of the Bush Administration. However, he and his supporters are wary of raising public expectations too high. Hans Kierstead, head of the embryonic stem cell team at University of California Irvine, says: “I find it unfair that people demand so much from such a young field. Just look at the strides we have already made.”

And Bob Klein, the chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has been authorised to a spend at least $3 billion over 10 years on stem cell research, told the BIO biotechnology conference in Boston recently that good spin doctors would be needed to put across the right message in the event of setbacks.

The ideological right is not asleep,” said Mr Klein. “They will be prepared to spin [any problems] to promote their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and we’ll need a sophisticated fast- response messaging team to put across our message.” ~ Financial Times, May 9

BRITISH PRESSURE TO ALLOW EMBRYO HYBRIDS

Pressure is growing on the British government to permit the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for stem cell research. After a recent public consultation, it appears that the government is preparing to ban it, but there have been noisy protests from scientists and MPs. The Association of Medical Charities has sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair signed by 223 medical foundations and patient groups.

Whatever the public might feel, suggests the letter, the views of scientists should prevail: “They highlight the need for this work because of the shortage of human eggs for medical research and because they see it as a vital avenue of inquiry which could greatly increase our understanding of serious medical conditions and ultimately lead to new treatments.”  

Within Parliament, members of a science and technology select committee are giving hybrid embryos vigorous support. “Ministers have never provided a rational basis for their ban and their only supporters are pro-life groups and anti-science campaigners who oppose all embryo research,” says MP Evan Harris.

However, Josephine Quintavalle, director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “Despite the enthusiasm of this small committee, worldwide there is more opposition than support for the creation of such entities, and within the United Kingdom as well. The public should now demand an extensive and objective consultation at the highest democratic level, and by this we mean Parliament itself.” ~ BBC, Apr 5; AMC website   

CHINA REVISES ORGAN DONATION LAW

 

In response to international pressure, China has revised its regulations for organ transplants. The State Council, or Cabinet, has banned the sale of human organs for profit, donations by people under 18, and the use of organs without informed consent.

However, human rights groups were sceptical of genuine improvements in China’s opaque system for obtaining organs. The official news agency Xinhua maintains that most come from deceased donors who have voluntarily donated. While this may be true, in 90% of these cases, the cause of decease is a judicial execution. If so, voluntary consent is virtually meaningless, claims Nicholas Bequelin, of Human Rights Watch. 

Chinese legislators have been pushing for new laws to regulate and promote voluntary donation to prevent abuses. However, the rate of voluntary donation is very low, due in part to a cultural bias against removing organs before burial. ~ Washington Post, Apr 7   

Legislation