At last Gordon Brown has found his way out of the ridiculous political cul-de-sac he had wandered into with regard to this embryo legislation. A few thoughts on the ethics and politics of the issue.
First, I think we can all agree that the debate has been clouded by hyperbole and hysteria. The legislation as it stands does not give scientists license to create their own little Island of Dr Moreau. As I understand it, human genetic material is not being spliced with other species to create Greek-style chimeras. Instead, it is proposed that human DNA will be inserted into animal cells, which are free of that animal’s genetic material.
I think it is important to make the distinction between two scientific-moral considerations here. The first concerns the identity of a set of genes: whether it is morally permissible for scientists to alter that gene, and whether its identity changes when they do. The second consideration is how the gene (regardless of whether scientists have altered its sequence or not) is allowed to develop, and for how long.
A cell is made up of many things. In addition to DNA genes there are mitochondira and other structures which allow the cell to produce energy and function properly. But we know that it is in the DNA that the potential for life is stored. Genes are the instructions for life, while other matter inside the cells are tools for releasing that potential. It is only in the DNA that identity rests, and that identity will remain regardless of where it is placed. So it seems to me that the current ethical controversy falls into the second category described above.
I think the animal cell is a sort of ‘surrogate’ that bears a similar relationship to the duplicating genes as a surrogate mother would to a baby that she carries. Although a surrogate mother is essential for the development of the foetus into a baby, the instructions by which the baby grows are supplied from elsewhere. The genetic link between the biological mother, father and child remains unchanged. Likewise with this proposed microbiological technique: The genetic link remains secure. Scientists are not ‘playing God’ by altering genetic material. Like surrogacy, all we are doing is allowing existing genetic material to grow in a new environment. If it can lead to medical breakthroughs in cancer treatment or Altzheimers, then it should be allowed.
Of course, “it’s just a surrogate” has moral limits too. My stomach would turn at the thought of allowing such cells to develop into a foetus or a child, just as it would if someone were able to grow a human baby inside a non-human surrogate (say, an organgutang or a Huxley-esque vat of goo). Future ethicists may not be so squeamish.