The Creation and Use of Hybrid Embryos: Morally Permissible or Morally Obligatory?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in


In a health service that is struggling to meet the needs of patients who suffer from Alzheimer's Disease, it is important to understand why the government is proposing a ban into research that could help this medical condition. The Government proposes to ban the creation of hybrid embryos, i.e., embryos that are largely human but also part animal. The idea behind the science is that human skin cells combine with animal cells to create an embryo from which stem cells can be extracted. These stem cells can be used to conduct research into various medical conditions including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Motor Neurone Disease. At the moment, embryos that are left over from fertility treatments are being used but these human embryos are in short supply. The benefits of stem cell research are tremendous. Stem cells have the potential to grow into various organs, tissue and so on. Only this week, a British led team has found a way to grow part of the human heart using stem cells. Of course, this does not mean that stem cell research is not subject to regulation but is an outright ban on hybrid embryos really necessary?

Apart from the fact that the idea of hybrid embryos makes most of us a little squeamish, we ought to explore whether there is a genuine moral reason to ban the research per se. The Government's public consultation exercise based on which it has concluded that the research ought to be banned on grounds of "public unease" appears to be somewhat inaccurate. The groups surveyed seemed not be representative of the views of the public and the number of charities who have opposed the proposed ban is similar to the number of people who have supported the ban. Still, quite apart from this problem, if the use of human embryos is within the law, then why ought the use of hybrid ones be outlawed?

If the Government is worried that such research is degrading to humans, it is not clear why. If the use of "fully human" embryos is legal, then the use of "nearly fully human" embryos ought not to be legally problematic. If one objects to an outright ban on the use of all embryos, then the ban to use hybrid ones will at least be consistent. However, if the use of embryos is permissible, as indeed it is, then it is not clear why an embryo that is approximately 99.5% human acquires more rights and generates more moral worry than one that is 100% human.

If the fear is that hybrid ones might be implanted which could perhaps result in some hybrid being, appropriate regulation can address this problem. We ought not to allow the possibility of misuse to govern legislation. Those who want to misuse technology will do it anyway, regardless of the law. In any case, the current proposals seek permission to research diseases and not permission to create a new species.

If the Government's fears centre around animals, this is encouraging. However, before the Government worries about the inappropriate treatment of animals in the creation of hybrid embryos, it ought to look at the conditions of factory farming. Concern for animal welfare is entirely appropriate; to use it as a reason to ban the creation and use of hybrid embryos, somewhat misplaced. As with all medical and scientific research that involves humans and animals, proposals ought to be scrutinised, ethical issues discussed and permission granted or refused on the basis of individual proposals. For the Government to put forward blanket legislation that does not even allow the possibility of such proposals to be considered is morally wrong.The issue of hybrid embryos, like most new developments in medical science, carries with it a certain degree of moral repugnance. However, if we think of IVF which is now so commonplace, there was a time when creating an embryo in a Petri dish also generated moral discomfort. As long as regulations are in place and proposals are reviewed, there ought not to be a ban on the creation and use of hybrid embryos. The Government has a duty to patients who suffer from the medical conditions that such research can help to promote this research. Research on stem cells from these hybrid embryos is, therefore, not only morally permissible but also morally obligatory.