Mixed response from Church of England on embryo research

By staff writers
1 Jul 2007

The Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council has given cautious acceptance to the proposal to produce cytoplasmic hybrid embryos for research into the alleviation of serious diseases.

However it has also accused the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) of "a serious disregard for ethics in favour of seeking scientific knowledge by all available means". The Church of England has further challenged what it claims is a Government u-turn on the need of a child for a father.

The STC’s recommended approach to human tissue and embryos would allow the production of all possible kinds of hybrids and chimeras, including ‘true’ hybrids, the Mission and Public Affairs Council says in a response to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. The Church cannot support that.

"Though the majority of such hybrids would be unlikely to be viable," says the Council’s response, "the STC’s approach would even allow the fertilization of a human egg by non-human primate sperm or vice versa, with increased likelihood of viability. Such a suggestion betrays a serious disregard for ethics in favour of seeking scientific knowledge by all available means."

The response also voices concern that the STC apparently proposes that the 14-day limit for embryos created using material from more than one species might be extended if proved necessary. It sees this as an invitation to pressure from researchers to remove a carefully drawn boundary.

The Council takes a slightly more open line on cloned embryos (produced using cell nuclear replacement or CNR, as with Dolly the sheep) but pointing out that they could still, in theory, become persons bearing the image of God. CNR embryos, it says, therefore still merit a special status and protection, even though they are produced asexually and may not be intended to give rise to human beings.

CNR embryos should never be produced with the intention or possibility of being developed beyond the 14-day limit. Within that limit, strictly controlled experimentation may be permissible, the response allows.

The Council recognizes that many Christians who accept the creation of embryonic stem cells by CNR using only human material feel deeply uncomfortable about creating cytoplasmic hybrids, even for research. It feels that some assurance should be given to those who are concerned about this development in the light of the dubious efficacy of this research and its controversial nature.

The Council says it is "prepared to accept" the need for such research with two provisos. The first is that licenses should not be continued if this line of research is not proving to be fruitful after 5 years. The second is that if research using dedifferentiated human cells proves successful then licenses should no longer be granted for CNR embryos.

The response re-iterates the Church of England hierarchy’s view that no embryo, however created, should be used, selected against or destroyed "for trivial reasons".

On the question of children born via in-vitro fertilisation, the Mission and Public Affairs Council makes clear that it "believes it is wrong to remove the requirement to take account of the need of that child for a father" from the Bill as it sends "an entirely erroneous signal about the significance of fathers especially at a time when many children and families are suffering because of lack of attention and care from absent fathers".

"In recent years," the response notes, "the Government has stated that they believe that it is better for a child to have both a father and a mother, that ‘the single most important factor is the welfare of the child’ and that ‘the welfare of children cannot always be adequately protected by concern for the interests of the adults involved’. We are concerned that the Government now appears to have abandoned these views in deciding to remove the ‘need of a child for a father’ clause and in shifting the emphasis from the welfare of the child to the desires and supposed rights of adults to be able to have a child using IVF. We urge the Government to retain the need of a child for a father clause."

The Church's response concludes: "We believe that the only way to address the drift towards personal procreative autonomy becoming the only ethical consideration is to stipulate in law that the welfare of the child to be born after IVF is paramount, in the same way as this is already dictated in the Adoption and Children Act 2002."

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