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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Where are the moderate Tories condemning Zac Goldsmith’s campaign?

Conservative MPs are reluctant to criticise the London mayoral candidate’s dogwhistle rhetoric.

Very few Conservative politicians have criticised Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected London mayor. And, amid repeated accusations of racial profiling, Islamophobic undertones, and patronising London’s Indian communities, there has been plenty to criticise.

Ever since describing his rival, Sadiq Khan, as having “radical politics” at the end of last year, Goldsmith’s campaign has come under fire for attempting to sound a dogwhistle to voters for whom racial politics – and divisions – are a priority.

You may feel it’s naïve of me to expect Tory MPs to join in the criticism. Presumably most Tory MPs want their party’s candidate to win the mayoralty. So it is unlikely that they would condemn his methods.

But I’d argue that, in this case, we can’t excuse dodged questions and studied silence as good clean tribalism. Granted, Conservatives only want to see their party make electoral gains. And that is understandable. But trickier to explain away is how willing all of the party’s MPs – many of whom are as moderate and “cotton-wool Tory” (in the words of one Labour adviser) as we once assumed Goldsmith was – are to ignore the campaign’s nastier side.

Why aren’t the Cameroons (or neo-Cameroons) who wish to further “detoxify” the party speaking out? There are plenty of them. There is more enthusiasm on the Tory benches for David Cameron than is generally assumed. Many of the 2015 intake are grateful to him; those in marginal seats in particular see him as the reason they won last year. And in spite of the grumbling nature of the 2010-ers, a number of them are keener than appears on Cameron. After all, plenty wouldn’t be in parliament without his A-list and open primaries (a time when the party was supposed to be opening up to candidates of different backgrounds, something Goldsmith’s rhetoric could threaten).

And we know it’s not just Labour whining about Goldsmith’s campaign. It makes Tories uncomfortable too. For example, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council Binita Mehta, former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, and Tory peer and former minister Sayeeda Warsi have spoken out.

And it’s not just non-MPs who are riled by Goldsmith’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, Conservative MPs have been muttering for weeks about feeling uncomfortable about the campaign.

“There has been a sense that this is a bad dogwhistle, and it’s a bit of a smear,” one Tory MP tells me. “I don’t think Sadiq Khan’s a bad man at all – I think his problem is, which happens to all politicians, is some of the platforms in the past and the people he shared them with, and maybe he didn’t know – I mean, the number of times David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair were shown at some fundraising thing, or just visiting somewhere, shaking hands with somebody who turns out to be a crook; that’s the nature of mass politics.”

There is also a mixed view among London’s Tory MPs about the tone of Goldsmith’s campaign generally. Some, who were frustrated in the beginning by his “laidback, slightly disengaged” style, are simply pleased that he finally decided to play dirty with the more energetic Khan. Others saw his initial lighter touch as an asset, and lament that he is trying to emulate Boris Johnson by being outrageous – but, unlike the current London mayor, doesn’t have the personality to get away with it.

One Tory MP describes it as a “cold, Lynton Crosby calculation of the dogwhistle variety”, and reveals that, a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense among some that it was “too much” and had “gone too far and is counterproductive”.

But this sense has apparently dissipated. Since Labour’s antisemitism crisis unfolded last week, moderate Conservative MPs feel more comfortable keeping their mouths shut about Goldsmith’s campaign. This is because racism in Labour has been exposed, even if Khan is not involved. Ironic really, considering they were (rightly) so quick to condemn Ken Livingstone’s comments and call on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs to speak out against such sentiments. It’s worth noting that Labour’s moderates have been significantly less reluctant than their Tory counterparts to call out such problems in their own party.

There is also the EU referendum to consider. Tory MPs see division and infighting ahead, and don’t want to war more than is necessary. One source close to a Tory MP tells me: “[Goldsmith’s campaign] is uncomfortable for all of us – it’s not even considered a Conservative campaign, it’s considered a Zac Goldsmith campaign. But [we can’t complain because] we have to concentrate on Europe.”

So it makes sense politically, in the short term, for Tory moderates to keep quiet. But I expect they know that they have shirked a moral duty to call out such nasty campaign methods. Their calls for Labour’s response to antisemitism, and David Cameron’s outrage about Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply hollow attack lines if they can’t hold their own party to higher standards.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.