Animal/human hybrids? Who decides?

The public, the Government, the HFEA, Research Scientists or a journalist from The Times?

The Times is back on the ball, with journalist Mark Henderson reiterating his overwhelming and unquestioning enthusiasm for the creation of animal/human hybrids. Opposition is pigeonholed yet again as coming from a minority albeit loud religious voice, as opposed to many patient groups, leading scientists, doctors and ethicists who are all wisely in favour. There is not even a token gesture towards the informed scientific opposition, let alone any attempt to engage with the greater moral dimensions of these horrifying proposals.

The Department of Health’s White Paper on the subject is dismissed as being flawed and unrepresentative. This is an interesting conclusion, given that 535 responses were received by the DH, by most standards a pretty good response. 503 of these are available for public perusal. It is a shame that Mr Henderson did not have time to glance at these submissions before expressing his extraordinary partisan position, and it is an even greater pity that The Times has so little respect for public opinion.

Of the 503 responses accessible on the DH website, some 324 contributors did actually address the hybrid question, and we note that only a mere 87 expressed enthusiasm with some 237 calling for such creations to be banned altogether. For what it is worth, 120 of the total respondents could probably be described as pro-life or religious (although 20 did not respond to the hybrid question), but one could with equal assurance suggest that the 87 in favour of hybrids had a large axe to grind as well. Or does The Times critique only faith-based opposition? The DH was, therefore, pretty fair in its recommendation and Caroline Flint, the Public Health Minister, should not be bullied into thinking otherwise.

The overall number game is very curious. What exactly does constitute an acceptable public consultation? How many responses are needed? The HFEA has just completed one on egg donation for research for example. It received I believe a puny 90 responses, but that was instantly deemed sufficient to reassure the country that egg donation with compensation had met with public approval. And that’s without any of us even having access to the written responses and judging for ourselves. When it comes to the HFEA we have to take it on faith, if you will forgive the word.

At least those who wish can read and judge the DH evidence for themselves, and it is a pity that Mr Henderson had no appetite to do so.

I guess the benchmark for public consultations is if you like the outcome, any number is good enough. If you don’t – then obviously the exercise was flawed. All great fun I suppose but not very good journalism.

Canada has voted against the need or advisability of animal/human hybrids; the Australians followed suit in December 2006. Most of Europe is opposed. Even our own Royal Society has serious doubts, ‘There is at present insufficient scientific justification for creating human-animal hybrid embryos.‘ An article in Science, 24 November, 2006, is well worth a glance. It appears that for 70 years scientists have been trying to find out why hybrids are usually doomed to failure. Reading the laborious work of geneticist Daniel Barbash and colleagues, it doesn’t look as if they’ve found any answers yet. But I guess those are not the sorts of problems to worry our enthusiastic animal/human cloners.

Just one thing we would like to beg the Government. Please don’t entrust a consultation on the creation of animal/human hybrids to the HFEA. They haven’t the expertise to deal with such complicated science, and they start off in a clear position of compromise, having on all occasions – including in their own submission to the Department of Health – enthused about the wonders of animal/human hybrid and chimera research. Our vote goes to the Royal Society. Whatever the outcome they should at least be able to get their heads around the science. More than one can say for too many of the players in the field.

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