The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (www.hfea.gov.uk) has the responsibility for regulating treatment and research for initiatives related to human reproduction. They are a committee of medical specialists, interested members of the public and others with specific concerns and experience of the field. They issued a statement on the 5th September, 2007 (www.hfea.gov.uk/en/1581.html) about the question of the licensing of human-animal hybrids and chimera research. This is a sensitive area, a taboo for some, and so they undertook a public consultation. They have concluded that:
“there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasm hybrid research. However, public opinion is very finely divided with people generally opposed to this research unless it is tightly regulated and it is likely to lead to scientific or medical advancements.”
They go on:
“This is not a total green light for cytoplasmic hybrid research, but recognition that this area of research can, with caution and careful scrutiny, be permitted. Individual research teams should be able to undertake research projects involving the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos if they can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of an HFEA licence committee, that their planned research project is both necessary and desirable.”
While the Authority has not made any decision on broader hybrid and chimera research because evidence of benefit is lacking, this is the first step along a possible line of medical developments. The moral question can be phrased in different ways.
Is there something about the human embryo which means it is not a quantity of material to be used for other purposes but of unique worth? Is a potential unique human person more than some flesh to be used to advance science? That argument has already been lost in as much as embryo research already takes place. But more is implied here.
Is there something about combining animal and human embryos which undermines human dignity? Theologians and philosophers frequently make reference to the fact that humans are distinct from other creatures of the animal world. For instance they have capacity for rational thought and moral decision making, and are separate and uniquely special because of this. Does the use of human ’embryonic material’ with animal diminish the dignity and status of humanity? On the other hand, are we just reacting to a ‘yuk’ factor of the idea of mixing human and animal? Of course these embryos will never be placed in the womb, but what could come next?
There is of course the tantalising possibility of fantastic benefits in the alleviation of terrible suffering brought about through the use of human and animal embryos in this way. Is medical advance more important than concerns about ideas of dignity or sanctity? Who decides when to allow changes in law to permit new procedures? What is the role of religion in that consultation process? To what extent should the experts represent the medical community, political groups or special interest groups such as religions?
Doctors and scientists may argue that the potential benefits for the good of humankind far outweigh misplaced taboo beliefs, while religions will be extremely nervous to let go of the normative and deontological beliefs about human life.