Scientists investigating early human development inevitably encounter a range of complicating factors, both biological and ethical. Nevertheless, the limitations of animal studies necessitate working directly with human material. Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), whether derived in the laboratory from IVF-‘surplus’ early human embryos, or (in theory at any rate) via somatic cell nuclear transfer (NT) technology – including ‘hybrid embryos’ / ‘admixed embryos’ / ‘cybrids’ (Eeesh, the terminology doesn’t help, does it?) – are touted as the means to unprecedented insight into human development and for advancing potential curative treatments for important diseases. However, experimental utilisation of human embryos is fraught with polemics, appreciation of which requires consideration of many factors – scientific, historical, religious, social and ethical – that influence the public’s perception of science and scientists. Attitudes are inextricably connected with the abortion debate and, consequently, issues of faith, gender, personhood, family, community, and organ/cell donation. (See this superb exposition of context by Janet Dolgin.)
Dissention arises chiefly from the biggest religion in the world – Christianity. The Catholic Church, which has shifted its interpretation of the timing of ensoulment (as defining human life) according to advances in embryology, considers life and personhood, as granted by God, to begin at conception. Hence, all abortion is excommunicable sin, rendering the moral status of the early embryo non-negotiable, with consequent vehement opposition to IVF (with some exception), hESC and cloning research. The pro-life movement is augmented by evangelical protestant groups who also deplore any intrusion into what they consider the divine initiation of human life.
Like the technology that eventually yielded Dolly the sheep in 1997, the announcement the following year of hESCs was another progression in the long-established field of developmental biology. However, whereas decades of stem cell research mostly bypassed public attention, these cells received massive US media publicity, not just concerning their suggested potential, but because of their embryonic origins. US prohibition of public money for research on human embryos does not extend to private sources, which legally funded this advance. However, the anti-abortion lobby was quick to exert influence. On 9 August 2001, President Bush banned federal funding for the derivation of hESC lines, only permitting research on existing lines derived before that date. Bush’s compromise was designed to appease religious conservatives who had mobilised in support of his election campaign, which promised a re-addressing of the abortion issue. However, of the 72 lines then available, when the field was in its relative infancy, very few have proved to be of use to researchers, and all are unsuitable for envisaged clinical application. Despite the non-applicability of this policy to privately-funded research, it is reckoned to have set back the field by years.
Religious opposition to research involving early human embryos employs emotive strategies. In the US it is argued that federal funding would effectively render all citizens complicit in a sinful enterprise. This is at odds, however, with surveys that reveal the majority of Americans as supportive of hESC research, undermining the Christian worldview and its institutional authority. In the UK, public money is permitted for funding research involving human embryos and fetuses on a utilitarian basis. However, although endorsed by patient groups, the scientific community and the biopharmaceutical industry, with majority public consent, it is, like in the US, condemned by campaigning and lobbying organisations that oppose abortion. Minority opposition groups influence media debate, mount legal challenges to existing legislation, and even field candidates in general elections. Hence, religious attitudes in the UK remain significant.
With the widespread availability of legalised abortion, the floundering pro-life movement was given a tonic through the emergence of hESC and ‘cloning’ technology, switching its focus from the preservation of family to concern for the embryo / fetus. It provides a church-promoting vehicle, which consequently can be anti-science. Attitudes to abortion and hESCs do not always align, however, and intra-religion attitudes differ. Redefining terminology, although sometimes considered a distraction from the ethical issues, is not just the preserve of scientists anxious to render their research more palatable. The commodification-of-human-embryos argument has swayed some abortion-tolerant religious organisations to advocate prohibitions on hESC research. Conversely, not all anti-abortionists are anti-research. This grouping, in order to accommodate anti-abortion and pro-scientific positions, also (like many scientists) prefer an altered perception of the embryo, either by nomenclature, or by altering their views of its moral status, according to context – the embryo is ‘fractionated’. This has led to the irony of some pro-lifers advocating therapeutic cloning as pro-family, whilst the pro-life movement has shifted its emphasis from families to embryos in the abortion debate. Other contradictory positions are also advocated by Christians who consider the ethical distinction between deriving hESCs from genomically-unique IVF-embryos, and from NT-embryos that contain an existing genome obtained from a tissue cell sample. This suggests competition between denominations for moral high ground and influence, and that religious leaders welcome and encourage conflict; it provides a platform from which they can preach their message and lobby politicians.
If you work on early human embryos, human embryonic stem cells, or cells and tissues derived from aborted human fetuses then, unless you spend your time in blinkers, you will be aware that there are people who resent what you do. Appreciation of the grounds to their objections is important, and you should recognise the privilege you have and be satisfied and comfortable with the ethical and procedural regulations that are in place. (If you aren’t, then you should get out). Nevertheless, you might respectfully demur to the opinions of those who would have the public believe that what you do is unworthy and immoral.
I, for one, am pleased with the outcome of The Commons voting on the updated HFE Bill, including the quashing of the opportunistic amendments on the 24-week abortion limit. The primarily religious motivations of MPs who dismiss utilitarianism as a secondary or even irrelevant ethic are bigoted, antiquarian, and often cheap. And who are men to postulate on whether or when women can have abortions anyway?