Embryology and Catholicism

Why is it that the Catholic Church is so vehemently opposed to something that has so many possibilit

In the Iliad, Homer described Chimera as “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire”. She was a monster, good only as a target for Bellerophon’s lead-tipped spear. To listen to the spiritual descendants of the Greek hero, you might think modern-day chimera were equally foul. The Catholic bishops leading the pro-life brigade don’t just want to destroy the monster, they want to ensure it never draws breath in the first place.

Yet the scientific meaning of chimera is far less fearsome. The word is used to describe creatures that have two or more different sets of genetic material caused when the zygotes of fraternal twins merge early in a pregnancy to form a single embryo. Test the DNA of, for example, the hair roots and saliva of a chimera and you would think they came from siblings.

But a person with this rare condition is no more a monster than you, I or even Cardinal Cormack Murphy O’Connor.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, to which the Cardinal’s priests objected so vociferously over Easter, would allow the creation of three new types of human-animal embryos - chimerics, true hybrids and cytoplasmic hybrids (or cybrids), known collectively by the awkward term “human admixed embryos”.

Chimeras are made by merging the cells of animal and human embryos, hybrids by fertilising the egg of one species with sperm from another and cybrids by inserting human DNA into an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed. Under the proposed new law, all three types would have to be destroyed after 14 days, and none could be implanted in a human womb.

The modern history of admixed embryos goes back at least as far as 1984, when sheep and goats were combined to create a geep. By 1990, hamster eggs were being used to check the fertility of human sperm. These true hybrids were allowed to grow for a day before being destroyed.

The first human-animal cybrids were made at the Shanghai Second Medical University in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs. A year later, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota announced it had created pigs whose veins carried human blood cells. And in 2005, British researchers added an extra, human, chromosome to mouse stem cells, leading to a strain of mice with Down’s syndrome, opening whole new dimensions of research.

The potential benefits of this sort of admixed embryonic research are so far reaching that many of them have not yet been imagined. Those that have been proposed include providing embryonic human stem cells (which are in short supply), animal models for research into human diseases and, perhaps one day, tissues and whole organs for transplant into humans.

Opponents of the Bill would have us believe that the DNA from humans is somehow different from the DNA of other animals, so they should not be mixed. In fact, at most levels, it is indistinguishable.

Deoxyribonucleic acid’s four bases - adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine - are found in the chromosomes of all life. The 20 amino acids used by life - each specified by a three-base codon in the genetic code - are similarly universal.

The proteins made up of amino acids are a bit more discriminating, but those found in humans are also present in a wide range of other animals. The difference is not in the fine structure, but in the way common components are assembled. Clearly, the division between human and animal is artificial.

With the potential medical benefits so great and the cell groups in question so microscopic, why is the pro-life movement so incensed? Perhaps it is because the real problem this presents to the religious right is not some unspecified “ethical question”; it is the risk of undermining the anti-abortion case. The idea that sacred human life begins with a single fertilised egg cell was clear and simple. It maintained the myth that we are superior to other forms of life, that we were created in His image. But should an embryo with 99 per cent human DNA get the same protection. Where now to draw the line?

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.
Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.