Christianity and the Petri dish

The Church of Scotland stance on stem cell research has proved religious conviction and scientific d

The progress of the recent update of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act through Parliament has, perhaps inevitably, generated much controversy, largely due to some of the areas covered by the Act, such as research on human embryos and “saviour siblings”.

One of the major areas of contention centres around stem cell technology. These special cells, characterised by their ability to self-regenerate and to be programmed to develop into particular types of cell, hold promise for treating neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. Much of the controversy surrounds the source of these cells: human embryos.

In order to generate sufficient numbers of embryonic stem (ES) cells, researchers need access to early human embryos. A major source of these embryos, the surplus from cycles of IVF treatment is drying up. Technological advances now allow unfertilised eggs to be frozen, whereas previous incarnations of the procedure meant that eggs had to be fertilised before freezing.

A number of solutions to these supply problems are provided in the HFE Act (2008). These include the generation of embryos specifically for research (rather than “spare” IVF embryos), and also the development of “cybrid” - human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos.

Obtaining human sperm is easy; getting access to good quality ova involves a much more invasive procedure, so few women donate for research purposes.

A visit to an abattoir, however, yields large numbers of cows eggs: the genetic material in the centre of these can be replaced relatively simply with that of a human cell, resulting in a “hybrid”, where most of the genetic material is human but the other part (the cytoplasm) is bovine.

Both solutions generate disquiet within many faith communities: generating human embryos simply for research purposes seems to invalidate the “special status” accorded them in previous legislation, and the fundamental mixing of human and animal material in cybrids crosses a line with which many are uncomfortable.

For its part, the 2006 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the policy making body of the church, voted to "oppose the creation for research or therapy of parthenogenetic human embryos, animal-human hybrid or chimeric embryos, or human embryos that have been deliberately made non-viable.”

In an approach which may be seen as being particularly prescient, however, the church has positively sought to “urge Her Majesty’s Government to encourage research into stem cells derived from adult tissues and placental cord blood, and to work to find therapeutic solutions which avoid embryo use."

Not only have many attempts to generate viable embryonic stem cells from cybrids proved more difficult than anticipated, but the rise of an “ethics free” alternative to ES cells seems to largely obviate the need to use human embryos in research.

These so called “induced pluripotent” (IP) cells involve artificially “regressing” specialised human cells (such as skin cells) so that they acquire the ability of stem cells to be reprogrammed into other cell types.

Although IP cells have not yet achieved the “gold standard” set by true ES cells, the ease with which they can be generated and the rapid advance of the technology, coupled to the lack of ethical “baggage”, is causing great excitement in the stem cell research world, and within the faith community.

Dr Murdo MacDonald is Policy Officer for the Society, Religion and Technology Project at the Church of Scotland

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.