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Has Experimenting On Human And Animal Life Lost Its Power To Disgust?
By Michael Cook on Abolitionist-Online.com
It's taken less than two years for us to get used to regarding human embryos as pharmaceutical fodder.
A university laboratory in Shanghai has created hundreds of human-rabbit hybrid embryos, the world's leading science journal, Nature, announced last week.
Yawn. So what? Delete.
That was the reaction of the Australian media to one of the most bizarre and horrifying developments in science in recent times. This was an event that should have been greeted with gasps of disgust. Instead, a story, which Nature treated as a sensational exclusive, was deemed so boring that it could hardly find a berth in the Australian media. Isn't something dreadfully amiss with our moral antennae when a credible source opens a window on the future of science, spies an ethical catastrophe - and journalists ignore it? Here's what has happened.
A U.S-trained scientist at Shanghai Second Medical University, Dr Huizhen Sheng, has published a peer-reviewed article in an international journal based in China describing how she created 400 embryos by injecting human DNA into the eggs of New Zealand rabbits. One hundred of these survived for several days. Sheng says she won't be implanting these embryos in human surrogate mothers to create carrot-loving babies with floppy ears and big front teeth. Her interest is extracting embryonic stem cells - ultimately to work miracles such as getting the likes of people in a similar position to the late Christopher Reeve to walk again, curing juvenile diabetes or reversing Parkinson's disease. Her overseas colleagues were a tad sceptical about her work, but very interested. If her results are verified, they will mark a significant advance in cloning technology. First, they show that it is possible to "reprogram" already developed adult cells so that they can revert to stem cells that are capable of forming any cell type in the body. Stem cell scientists describe this as the "holy grail" of their specialty. Second, it shows that hybrid species are possible. Hitherto, efforts to cross humans with other species have failed because mitochondrial DNA in the animal egg cell reacts negatively with human DNA. And finally, it implies that the "therapeutic cloning" touted by Professor Alan Trounson and other scientists in Australia could be managed on an industrial scale. There is no limit to the number of eggs New Zealand rabbits can produce - human eggs are far harder to obtain.
None of the cloning experts interviewed by various newspapers overseas had ethical qualms about the hybrid embryos. On the contrary, Robin Lovell-Badge, of Britain's National Institute for Medical Research, said he was impressed. Harvard University cloning expert Douglas Melton said "I'm glad to see it published, as it will encourage others to try it." Even American bioethics expert R. Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said she couldn't see any harm, provided the embryos were not implanted in a woman's body. Thankfully, the creation of hybrid species has been banned in Australia. But this doesn't mean that Sheng's work - if it proves successful - won't have an impact here. Researchers could try to import cut-rate Chinese human-rabbit stem cell lines - they might fit into tight research budgets more easily than 100 per cent human lines. Furthermore, we could expect an intense and angry campaign to reverse the ban on hybrids in order to make those miracle cures possible. Ethics? Well, look, hybrids have received the full endorsement of the Shanghai Municipal Council - what more could you want?
Am I drawing a long bow? I would have thought so - until last week's announcement. Then I realised that experimenting on human life and animal life at its most vulnerable has lost its power to shock and disgust. Not even two years ago, a tiny American biotech company, Advanced Cell Technology, set alarm bells ringing around the world when it claimed it had cloned a handful of human embryos. The ensuing controversy made front-page news, with abundant chatter about "standing on the threshold of a brave new world". Then there was the passionate, wordy and exhausting debate in Federal Parliament over research on frozen IVF embryos. That ended in victory for the researchers - a victory not only in Parliament, but in the minds of the media, the scientific community and the public. It has taken less than two years to habituate ourselves to regarding human embryos as pharmaceutical fodder. Now we've reached the point where scientists play at the ghastly fantasies of The Island of Dr Moreau and no one blinks. So don't be surprised if you read that Dr Huizhen Sheng has been trundled before an Australian parliamentary committee to argue the case for hybrid humans. If, of course, the local media bothers to cover her speech.
Michael Cook is the editor of the bioethics email newsletter Australasian Bioethics Information. He has kindly granted the Abolitionist-Online to re-print this article. If you would care to subscribe to his excellent Bioethics newsletter contact him by email.
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