Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The sanctity of human life

I’m very glad that the Commons has voted so strongly against a ban on hybrid embryos. I think that medical research with potential to help people with terrible illnesses is immeasurably more important than the oft-shrieked ‘sanctity’ of… well, what exactly?

(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.]


Matt M said...

I do not believe, with my soul or my brain, that I am 80% a mouse or 30% a daffodil.

Such a comparison is a touch unfair, though not to Mr Leigh.

I've tried to avoid any media coverage of the issue just because the way it's handled annoys me so much. People like Mr Leigh have no respect for objective evidence and want to shape legislation based on nothing more than a feeling that something is "unnatural".

It's the same reactionary mindset that's opposed advances in medical science for centuries. If it were up to these people we'd still be regarding all disease and injury as the sign of God's wrath.

Anonymous said...

“These clumps of cells are somewhat different. The 13-day embryo is 0.2mm long – in old money, that’s almost a twelfth of an inch. The 16-day embryo is 0.4mm – nearly one-sixth of an inch.”

They appear to have hearts. (Kidding…)

I think debating it was a good thing as it focuses on concerns and views of a myriad of people which is what good government really should do. Also, reactionary mindsets have their good points, there's no harm in being challenged on things, especially when it moves beyond mere opinion. My main objection to this portion of the bill is rooted in annoyance; it doesn't do much for other research options that could yield results. (Due to that, those scientists still have to jump through hoops or move to Japan...)

In any case, I think it's normal that people are reactionary. Especially as Western societies do heavily focus on children and how special they are...and how special we are, which Tom covers.

Matt M said...

I'm all for debates - but ones conducted rationally and based on objective evidence.

Reactionary mindsets (as opposed to merely conservative ones) aren't much good for encouraging discussion as they're irrational, based on nothing more than a gut-feeling that something is indefinably wrong.

If someone opposes or is concerned about stuff like hybrid embryos because they worry about the (real) possible consequences then I have absolutely no problem with that. I'll happily listen to their arguments. It's only when people oppose such measures based on mysticism (undeveloped embryos are somehow "alive" in the same sense as you and I) backed up by nothing more than a "feeling" that I get annoyed, as such a position serves only to shut down serious debate.

Anonymous said...

I think both sides can take a condescending tone without truly trying to educate, ‘share’ with the other side. I do accept that groups simply try to shut down debates sometimes, but without any attempts to reach out and find common ground I don’t believe true progress is secure. I can live with gut-feelings to some degree-- even though I’d prefer a more secular discussion-- as I know I shamelessly use them at times; plus, both sides are equally tempted to cherry pick data in an attempt to strengthen their arguments.

Tom’s post about the abortion limit being cut under a Tory lead government is a good example. When is the ‘need of a father’ eligible for debate for those that take on a conservative view? I don’t have data for the UK, but I know in the US it’s something like 1 out of 10 abortions that takes place that late. Why isn’t the passion such a debate brings equally applied to improving sex education?

(I’m not opening this up for discussion --as I’m well aware that this clarifying post is a bit much-- just giving an example where I think even the debates, which I’m a constant cheerleader for, are broken. Naturally, I don’t know how to fix it as legislation is typically separate for such things- which isn’t awful, but it would call out the hypocrisy found in the right and left echo chambers. And I’m well aware it isn’t feasible to debate all issues to such length; I don’t live in an entire dreamlike world.)

I don’t agree with all parts of the bill, but the debate did let the MPs shine a bit-- assuring the public that government isn’t really useless-- plus, science got a really good platform in the press and a chance to educate the public a bit more, and the religious groups were assured that they’d still have a voice and yes, they had a chance to share their views in the press too. Not a terrible result.

Oh, and I know better than to think you’re against such debates as I’ve seen your blog with Alex (?). While I don’t share your exact sentiments about this debate, I suppose my response was focused on the element of disenchantment in your response and that of the apathy or fervor traditionally found in these debates, without the optimistic, calm side to even everything out. Excluding the, “Think of the cures!” rally cry, of course.