Embryonic stem cell research is at the very forefront of modern medical and biological research. The research that is taking place in labs across the planet right now is leading a new revolutionary wave in potential medical treatments and therapies that could have a transformative effect on the quality and length of human life. This is because embryonic stem cells have two key qualities. Firstly, they are what is termed pluripotent, that is they are undifferentiated cells that have the potential to become any of the 220 cell types in the human body. Secondly, they have the ability to replicate themselves indefinitely.
Stem cell therapies offer up a series of tantalising prospects. Heart disease could be treated in the future by the injection of stem cells into the damaged site or sites, allowing natural repair to the damaged areas of the heart. Lost function to nerve cells in spinal injuries could be treated similarly (you may recall ‘Superman’ actor Christopher Reeves campaign for stem cell research in the USA prior to his untimely death). Degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease may ultimately see huge breakthroughs in available treatments from this research. Even certain types of blindness may be mitigated or cured if scientists can perfect the ‘trick’ to encouraging stem cells emplaced at the back of the eye to grow into light sensitive rods and cones.
And it doesn’t stop there. The picture below illustrates graphically just how important stem cell research could be in treating a whole range of debilitating conditions in the future, and therefore radically improving millions of lives across the globe.
There is overwhelming consensus in the medical and biological scientific community over the potential of this research. It is also the consensus that the human embryos involved in such research are at such an early stage that they are not conscious in any sense of the word; they do not even possess a nervous system. They are typically embryos from fertility treatments that are never going to be placed in a womb, or in future might be cloned specifically for research purposes. Consequently, they are only a group of cells, not a person; they have no chance of ever developing into a person and would be destroyed anyway. One of the first acts of the Obama administration in signalling that it would pursue a science based agenda instead of the agenda of the US fundamentalist Christian right was to repeal George W. Bush’s legislation banning stem cell research using such embryos.
Imagine then the shock, surprise and frustration of researchers throughout Europe when, in the latter part of last year, the European Court of Justice effectively put a stop to a whole number of research projects by instituting a Europe wide ban on the patenting of stem cell inventions from embryo research.
Steve Connor of the ‘i’ newspaper reported at the time:
The moral and scientific imbecility of such a judgement in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe in the second decade of the 21st century takes the breath away. Leave aside for the moment the fact that none of the embryos in question will ever see the inside of a womb and will be destroyed anyway regardless of whether not they are used in research. Leave aside any knee jerk socialist response that research should not be done for commercial gain anyway, and that under socialism medical and scientific research will be for the common weal, not shareholder trousering. (This may true, but it does not help us address the immediate question of how progressives deal with this huge setback now). The plain fact of the matter is this judgement has the capacity to set back critical research in Europe for decades. People suffering from diseases and life threatening conditions that stem cell research could help alleviate need help yesterday. Many hundreds of thousands, even millions, could suffer unnecessarily because of this judgement, and be denied extra decades of quality of life.
Political progressives and the scientists need to ask three simple questions; why has this happened? What can we do to change it? Are there ways to get around this ruling right now?
Why has it happened? Let’s not beat about the George W.
Either directly, through the judges’ own prejudices, or indirectly through the codification in national and European law by precedent and assumption over a period of hundreds of years, the religious doctrine of ensoulment still apparently exerts some sway over what constitutes a person worthy of ethical status and rights in law. In this dualist view of the human condition, body and soul are separate, and what makes a human being a human being is the possession of a soul, distinct from the body. The body is ensouled by God at conception and therefore what makes a human being - a person - distinct and unique, is there from conception. In this view, destruction of an embryo at any stage is the destruction of an individual and a sin against God.
While such Aristotelian logic might understandably have had some currency in Greco-Roman times, the medieval era or the pre-scientific renaissance, the modern scientific view, supported by a huge weight of evidence, is that what constitutes a person is supervenient* on the brain and its sensible and social interaction with the world through the body and the nervous system in personal historical time.
Obscurantist notions of the soul enter into it no more than do myths of giant serpents or demi-gods. It is not the main thesis of his book but Sam Harris puts it succinctly when speaking about stem cell research in The End of Faith and I shall quote him at a little length:
We might add though, that in the dualist religious view a fly, or any other animal for that matter, does not possess a soul.
People are of course, entitled to their beliefs, and science must always have a powerful ethical element. But when belief systems are at odds with science and threaten to deprive humanity in its millions of the potentially enormous benefits of scientific research, progressives and rationalists are entitled to ask whether such views can or should have any role to play in the political, ethical or legal framing of what constitutes acceptable science.
I would argue that progressive thinkers and politicians need to come together with the scientific community in a long term and sustained campaign not just to challenge this particular European Court of Justice ruling but the very precedents and codifications of law on which it is based. Our ethical and legal decision making in a modern 21st century society needs to be based on genuine empathy and compassion for real living and suffering human beings and upon best scientific evidence. Any other approach leads to absurdity and obscenity.
Such a campaign would inevitably be a long term campaign, however. It would need to overcome the huge obstacles that would inevitably be strewn in its path from vested and organised religious groups.
Is there any way that researchers and governments can circumvent the European ruling right now? I believe that there is.
When Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first effective deliverable polio vaccine in 1953, he refused to patent it and made his results feely available for anyone who wanted to develop it. In his view the work could benefit the whole of humanity and belonged to the whole of humanity.
Such altruism is admirable, and no doubt many of today’s scientists and researchers share that altruism, but Dr. Salk’s reputation and employment was already secure. For many modern day researchers, after many years of the domination of the neo-liberal commercialisation model of science dominating within Europe, sustained funding for research seems implacably tied in with the willingness of private companies to invest for profit, thus the concern over the inability to patent implied by the EU ruling.
Scientists and researchers are no different in this respect from any other group of workers; they need to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads; they want security of employment and decent recompense for their labours; they want recognition for their innovations and for the contribution their efforts make to the wider community. It isn’t necessarily that science or scientists are tied to a particular model of funding or that they themselves want to accrue huge profits from their work (although some might do). It’s more a question of how do you do good research if you don’t know where your next euro is coming from? And where is the motivation if you know that your research might not be able to benefit the wider public because of legal strictures?
The EU ruling explicitly rules out the use of non-viable human embryos for profit. It does not explicitly rule out the use of such non-viable embryos for research or medical purposes. I would argue that the way to ensure such valuable research continues here in Scotland, in the UK and throughout Europe in the short to medium term, is to develop not-for-profit medical trusts with the participation of governments, medical charities and research institutions. Manufacturing and commercialisation expertise could be ‘bought in’ by these not-for-profit trusts initially, if necessary, allowing them both to develop the fundamental science of embryonic stem cell research, carry through the research and development stage of usable technologies, and then manufacture therapies for sale to the NHS and other national medical institutions on a not-for-profit basis. Therapy sale costs could cover costs of manufacture, research and development, and provide a funding stream for researchers, but have no profit element for private shareholders.
Not only would such a model get around the European ruling, it is a more ethical, open and transparent model for scientific research from first principles. It provides security of employment and a system of recognition for the work of the scientists involved, and cheaper treatments for the NHS at the end of the day because the profit element is removed.
Above all, it would provide hope in the face of a reactionary EU ruling for the many millions of people throughout Europe and the world suffering from debilitating conditions and illnesses whose lives may be saved or immeasurably improved in the future as a result of embryo stem cell research.
* Re: supervenience http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supervenience