(Images from The Visible Embryo website.)
The first one is a 13-day-old embryo; the second is 16 days old. The HFE Bill would mean any hybrid embryos created for harvesting stem cells from couldn’t be kept past 14 days. I haven’t actually said that these images are of human embryos; indeed, they are. I’m guessing that most readers lack the expertise to tell by looking. Perhaps that tells us something.
Anti-abortionists like to put a lot of weight on images that show ‘unborn children’ actually looking childlike – you can see their little hands and faces and so on. These clumps of cells are somewhat different. The 13-day embryo is 0.2mm long – in old money, that’s under a hundredth of an inch. The 16-day embryo is 0.4mm – nearly one-sixtieth of an inch.
Hardly “Frankenstein proportions”. Nor, I suggest, are these people with rights in any way.
Tory MP Edward Leigh, moving the ban on this research and trying to explain why 14-day embryos are so vitally important, accidentally explained why this is much less of an issue, when he argued in the Commons last night:
I was today e-mailed by a scientist, who told me that I had got it wrong and that I should not worry about admixing animal and human embryos because we have a large number of animal genes. He told me that I was 30% a daffodil and 80% a mouse. I am not sure that even my greatest political enemies would say that I was 30% a daffodil and 80% a mouse. I do not believe, with my soul or my brain, that I am 80% a mouse or 30% a daffodil. I think that the human race is special and different from the animal race, and that we should take the issue seriously for that reason.
The curious thing here is that he’s right (except for the soul bit; they don’t exist). Whatever our genetic commonality with other creatures, we are quite unique on Earth in being capable of self-conscious reasoning, feeling, decision-making, reminiscing, planning and social interaction of a cognitive and emotional complexity that leaves the finest chimps in the dust; we are capable of art, science, politics, blogging and more. This is why we’re special.
But a 14-day embryo can’t do any of these things. The 14-day point may be significant as neural cells haven’t yet started to differentiate. Before that, the embryo can have precisely no mind at all. A retarded ant is Shakespeare, Einstein and Churchill rolled into one next to the ‘monstrosities’ that this part of the Bill covers.
All such an embryo has in common with us is DNA, which is precisely the commonality Leigh dismisses.
This does not, as one BBC reporter said last night, pit ‘science’ against ‘the sanctity of human life’. Rather, scientific progress using these embryos is what could help make many actual human lives that bit more – in a slightly woolly secular way, of course – sanctified.
A good result.
[Update: I realised I managed to get the imperial conversions wrong by a factor of ten. For instance, 0.4mm is not about a sixth of an inch but about a sixtieth. Oops. Have changed in the above.]