BLURRING THE LINE BETWEEN HUMANS AND ANIMALS: BRITAIN'S NEW HFEA BILL
William L. Saunders
There have been some strange legal developments in the United Kingdom that, I believe, should worry any thoughtful person. They center around decisions by a regulatory agency and by a Parliamentary committee in favor of the creation of human/animal hybrids.
In November 2006, two different groups of researchers applied to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for research licenses to create human/animal hybrids. The research in question would use non-human animal eggs (or ova or oocytes, i.e., female sex cells). It would remove the animal nucleus (which contains the DNA) and replace it with a nucleus from a human being (this is the somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning, procedure). Using animal eggs eliminates certain ethical and financial constraints presented in mass egg procurement from women (which is both difficult and dangerous). However, though the DNA of the animal nucleus is removed, the egg's cytoplasm--the material surrounding the nucleus--also contains DNA. Thus, creating a living being through this procedure creates a hybrid, which is part human and part animal.
In considering this issue, the HFEA proposed to distinguish five kinds of hybrid research: cytoplasmic hybrid embryo research (the creation of "cybrids," through the procedure described immediately above); hybrid embryo research (the mixing of animal and human gametes); human chimera embryo research (human embryos with animal cells added to them in early development); animal chimera embryo research (animal embryos with human cells added); and transgenic human embryo research (human embryos with animal genes inserted into them during early development). I say "proposed" to do so because each of these procedures creates a living being that is part animal and part human. It is unclear why it should make any ethical difference which procedure is employed.
However, on September 5, the HFEA, while not endorsing alternatives two through five above, did endorse alternative one - "Having looked at all the evidence the Authority has decided that there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research." Surely, this is an exceptional claim: most people would consider such research to be monstrous. In the strict sense, it creates what the dictionary defines as a monster--" an imaginary or legendary creature, such as a centaur or Harpy, that combines parts from various animal or human forms"--except that it would now no longer be imaginary.
As the HFEA considered the matter, a Joint Committee of the British Parliament published a report. At issue in particular was the scope of the HFEA's jurisdiction in inter-species research. It was unclear, for example, if the HFEA has the power to grant licenses for hybrid research--that is, whether hybrids are covered by the HFE Act of 1990 or the Animals Act of 1986. The Joint Committee found distinctions between hybrids and "cybrids" made by the licensing authority of the HFEA to be "arbitrary." Given the contentious nature of inter-species experimentation, the Joint Committee concluded that the question should be decided by the people, through their elected representatives, "in a free vote in both Houses of Parliament." The full Parliament will consider the question this fall.
Thus, the bottom line is this: either through Parliamentary amendment to the HFEA or, should Parliament fail to act, through the existing HFEA interpretation of the law, human/animal hybrids will be created in Britain, and soon. This raises acute questions of ethics. The supporters reply with two points: there is nothing to worry about because the hybrids will be destroyed, and they aren't true human/animal hybrids anyway. Neither reply is persuasive.
How does the fact that these beings will be destroyed answer the question whether they should be created in the first place? On a purely pragmatic level, what can possibly guarantee that all of them will, in fact, be destroyed? Many eco-systems are bedeviled with foreign plants and animals that, we were assured, would never escape into the environment. Remember, the killer bees? African bees transported to Brazil escaped, mated with the native bees, and created a hybrid that can pose a deadly threat to human beings. This is a nice parallel to what we are considering here.
Second, mitochondrial DNA does matter. It does influence development of the organism, albeit in ways not wholly understood. Thus, even with "cybrids," there will be a true mix of the animal and the human. It will be a being like none before it. What gives us the right to create it?
Surely this should cause us to pause in our headlong rush to embrace novelty, satisfy every curiosity, and pursue every imaginable form of scientific research. We need to think hard about this. Shouldn't science be subjected to the ethical restraints, and plain common sense, that govern us in every walk of life? Why should we accept that if it can be done scientifically, we should allow it to be done?
William L. Saunders is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Human Life and Bioethics at Family Research Council.