Catholics on human-animal hybrids: basically they’re yucky

Catholics on human-animal hybrids: basically they’re yucky March 23, 2008

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, has used his Easter Sunday sermon to try to influence the forthcoming Commons debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

In a key part of the sermon (full text here), he complains about the creation of human-animal hybrids as a research tool:

What I am speaking of is the process whereby scientists create an embryo containing a mixture of animal and human genetic material. If I were preaching this homily in France, Germany, Italy, Canada or Australia I would be commending the government for rightly banning such grotesque procedures.

However here in Great Britain I am forced to condemn our government for not only permitting but encouraging such hideous practices.

So why is O’Brien so worked up? What, exactly is his problem? To me these issues are interesting because, for obvious reasons, the Bible offers no advice whatsoever on them. They must, you would think, pose a major challenge for those who still believe the Bible to be the word of God (either literally or metaphorically). How can you make an ethical judgement if God omitted the topic from his treatise?

But it’s not a problem for Cardinal O’Brien. He just thinks it’s yucky, and that’s that. He doesn’t justify his position by anything so crude as a reference to the Bible. And it’s clear that he hasn’t a clue about the science, or even what it is that the bill is proposing. What he does say, for example, is:

It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which, more comprehensively, attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular Bill.

So let’s be clear here. What the bill will allow is the creation of an embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer into an animal embryo. In other words, genes from an ordinary (non-embryo) human cell are transferred to an animal cell. The only animal genes remaining are in the mitochondria. No human embryo is destroyed. The Lancet explains (free registration required):

The Sept 6 ruling applies to a procedure in which the nucleus of a human somatic cell is introduced into an animal egg that has had its nucleus removed. The altered cell is then stimulated to begin embryonic development. Stem cells can be harvested from the embryo, a process that usually destroys it.

In other words, this is a technique that offers the potential for unlimited supply of stem cells without destruction of human embryos that occurs using conventional techniques. Sure, potentially there are ethical concerns (if these embryos were implanted, say). But nobody’s proposing to do that. So what’s the problem again? Oh that’s right , it’s yucky! As The Lancet concludes:

The promise of this research is, indeed, great. Somatic- cell nuclear transfer will allow the production of stem cells that will enable us to develop new treatments for diseases that are today incurable. And it is possible—though far from certain—that these techniques might one day make it possible to create cells that can be used to replace damaged or lost tissue. This argument is not to say that there should be a Faustian bargain to obtain the benefits of stem-cell research regardless of ethical cost.


Anon. Animal-human hybrid-embryo research. The Lancet 2007;370:909. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61420-2

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