Saturday, March 29, 2008

Before I Forget

Before my granddad died, he suffered for around nine years with Alzheimer's. The worst thing wasn't the forgetting things, the not recognising people or the needing round-the-clock care. The worst symptom of Alzheimer's was the depression. He knew he was a burden to those who cared for him, he knew what was happening to him and it broke his heart every day.

Important research into potential treatments for Alzheimer's include research on the use of stem cells harvested from blastocysts - clusters of pre-embryonic cells. At present such research is slowed considerably by the limited supply of such blastocysts, which are made using donated human eggs. The egg donation process is non-trivial and involves a woman taking fertility drugs to cause the eggs to mature and then having them surgically extracted.

However brilliant scientists have come up with a way to create very similar blastocysts using eggs extracted from large mammals, like cows. Obviously this allows many more eggs to be harvested and thus many more blastocysts created and available to researchers. Here's the catch, since the blastocyst has 100% human cell DNA but with bovine mitocondrial DNA it's technically "a part human, part animal" hybrid, which scientists are legally not allowed to create.

So step in Gordon Brown with the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which includes a special clause to allow the creation of human-animal hybrid blastocysts so long as they are destroyed before they reach 14 days "old", i.e. long before they have developed into even an embryo. Problem solved.

Except finding cures and treatments for horrid debilitating diseases is something the Catholic Church really hates. Suddenly we're told MPs have been consulting their local churches about this (Which MPs? And have they also consulted the Alzheimer's and Parkinson's sufferers in their local care homes and hospices? Also I had no idea how many Catholics there are in parliament, didn't Henry the Eighth get rid of them a few centuries back and replace them with the cub scouts?). And after much debate they're now being given a free vote on that clause...

Now a part of me thinks a free vote is the right choice because at least we'll all know which MPs not to vote for next time round.

But another part of me thinks this: I'm an atheist. I'll bet you good money most of the researching scientists are atheists. I don't want to suffer like Granddad did. So I propose that the atheist scientists get on with the research and if the Catholic Alzheimer's sufferers of the future prefer not to use the resulting treatments on principle - fine. You see the law isn't saying anyone would be forced to create hybrid blastocysts, only that they can if they want to. Those people who object to their creation are welcome to not create them.

And isn't this the trouble with religious-based laws? I mean if you're religious about it, don't get an abortion, don't get a gay marriage, don't adopt children into your lesbian family (another clause they are being allowed to opt out of) but don't try to pass laws telling me how to live my life.

If it doesn't go through, I might go offer to donate some eggs to researchers. Anyone know how to do this? Anyone else coming?


butterflywings said...

Completely agree.
Yes...obviously *not* curing people of awful life-ruining and fatal diseases is, um, pro-life...? cos some bunch of cells has more right to life?
Religious people are nutters.

Ink and Indigo said...

I spoke to my MP about this today and he said that most Labour MPs hadn't wanted the free vote, condemned the Catholic churches hypocrisy (they don't want a free vote, they want a Catholic whip)and said that most of the Labour MPs were going to vote for the legalisation of hybrid embryos anyway, which hopefully is a good sign.

As for the donation of eggs, if I remember correctly it involves taking a lot of fertility meds, and some invasive surgery which carries a risk of infertility, hence the low number of people coming forward.

Absinthecity said...

I wonder how many women on the pro-life side who object so strongly to the use of stem cells are willing to, or indeed do, donate their own eggs? I think that's the only way their argument could ever stand up, but somehow don't see it working that way.

Feminist Avatar said...

Pro-life people do not object to this procedure (just) because of the animal hybrid element. Many pro-life people believe that once the egg is fertilised (which it is as a blastocyst- its about five days old and will eventually become an embryo at about three weeks old) it is a life. They could not donate their own eggs because they would see experimentation and the eventual distruction of the blastocyst as torture and murder respectively.

I am not saying that their understanding of conception or the beginning of life is correct, but their beliefs are at least consistent in this regard.

Leia Organa said...

Thought you might be interested in Allecto's comment on this matter.

Cruella said...

To believe the hardline pro-life position on this one you essentially have to believe that the blastocyst's life is of equal or greater value to that of a 50 year old who has lived a busy life, has a family and is now experiencing early-onset Alzheimers. Now that is pretty screwed up but if you want to stop blastocysts forming and being destroyed, step one should be for every woman to go on the pill. Millions of fertilised eggs are shed by women around the world every month as part of their normal menstrual cycle.