EU Funding for Embryo Research: the hidden Agenda
We seem to have here a very clear example of the ‘slippery slope’ argument in action. After much controversy permission is given for a fundamental principle to be breached (the sanctity of human life) because it is felt to be justified by some imminent greater good.
Back in 2005/6 when the European Parliament was debating the Commission’s proposals for the Seventh Framework Programme for research funding there were intense discussions and much controversy over the funding of projects which required embryonic stem cells, which can only be obtained by destroying intact human embryos in the process of ‘harvesting’ them. The promoters of this type of research felt it was justified because it held out the hope of cures for debilitating human diseases and disabilities. Detractors pointed, inter alia, to the fact that sadly, this ‘hope’ was largely illusory. As the recent editorial in the New Scientist makes clear, the breakthroughs and the research activities providing the most promising hope of near term therapeutic use are coming from stem cells extracted from post-born humans or foetal material which is discarded as not needed by the developing embryo/foetus (eg. umbilical cord and placenta). The NIH (US National Institutes of Health website records 3,744 clinical trials using such cells (figures for adult stem cells and umbilical cord combined). These therapies are increasingly well established and pose no ethical problems. This category also now includes cells created from ordinary (eg. skin) tissue by the recently discovered process of manipulation which makes them revert to an earlier stage which are known as induced pluripotent cells (iPS). This progress continues with the 2007 level of treatments being available or undergoing clinical trial for some 73 conditions significantly exceeded.
But despite the ethical controversy surrounding the research use of embryonic stem cells and the fact that such research was illegal in many Member States, the European Parliament eventually approved the use of stem cells obtained from so-called ‘supernumerary’ embryos created for the purposes of assisted reproduction treatment (IVF) but later deemed to be surplus to requirements. During First Reading an amendment which would have restricted research only to stem cells lines already obtained, so as not to provide any incentive to destroy further embryos, was defeated by a majority of only 19 votes.
Reasons given for permitting the funding of embryo research
Why was such a controversial proposal adopted? What research was felt to justify such an ethically contentious process? The answer is that there was intensive lobbying from big pharmaceutical interests and patient advocacy groups (often funded by the same pharmaceutical interests). This lobbying focused exclusively on cures for debilitating human diseases and disabilities – to the extent of bringing wheelchair bound patients to press conferences and stating that Parliament must allow this research or the cures they need to get out of their wheelchairs, which are otherwise just around the corner, will not be achieved.
The European Group on Ethics (the official advisory body on biomedical ethics to the President of the Commission) in its Opinion No 15 on the Ethical Aspects of Human Stem Cell Research and Use in November 2000 opened the door to embryonic stem cell research. This was achieved by the famously argued idea that because countries had already permitted research on embryos in order to perfect artificial fertility treatment, there could be no logical barrier to extending that research to include the search for cures to severe diseases or injuries: “The Group notes that ….when this research (using material from human embryos) is allowed, with the purpose of improving treatment for infertility, it is hard to see any specific argument which would prohibit extending the scope of such research in order to develop new treatments to cure severe diseases or injuries. As in the case of research on infertility, stem cell research aims to alleviate severe human suffering.”
In their later Opinion No. 22 of July 2007 on the ethics review of FP7 research projects intending to use embryonic stem cells they stated that: “the justification for the use of human embryonic stem cells under FP7 is to be assessed during the scientific evaluation of research proposals. EU projects can be funded only if no suitable alternatives to human embryonic stem cells can be found and the absolute necessity of using hESCs has been scientifically justified and evaluated.”(…)“Applicants must show that their research is aimed at future human health benefit or bio-medical knowledge, and cannot be achieved by alternatives.”
An unexpected outcome of the Seventh Framework Programme
In view of the public justification for this ethically controversial research having been so clearly founded on the potential relief of human suffering, it is surprising to note that the largest single research project to date involving the use of human embryonic stem cells for which funding has been allocated under the Seventh Framework Programme actually has nothing at all to do with potential therapies for human disease or disability. This is a project called ESNATS, which is being funded to the tune of €12M for the development of Embryonic Stem Cell Based Novel Alternative Testing Strategies. Far from there being no alternative to the use of human embryonic stem cells in this project, the embryonic stem cells are to be developed as an alternative … to testing products on animals. So instead of human embryonic stem cells being considered as worthy of a higher level of respect or protection because human embryos have had to be sacrificed to obtain them – it is the embryonic stem cells themselves that are being cast in the role of an alternative to something else considered more worthy of protection. No human benefit is, in this case, being put forward as a justification for the research.
Moreover, for those (including the judges of the European Court of Justice who ruled that it would not ‘respect the fundamental principles of dignity and integrity of the person’ if a patent were to be granted for a process involving the use of human embryonic stem cells) who hold that the destruction of human embryos is an offence against fundamental values the funding of this particular project is a double whammy. Not only will embryonic stem cells be consumed in the research project itself, but if the research is deemed to be successful then EU Member States will be required to consume increasing numbers of embryonic stem cells on a recurring basis as the EU Directive on animal testing stipulates that where there is an alternative available, animals may not be used in product testing.
Conclusion – a clear case of the ‘slippery slope’ argument coming true
We seem to have here a very clear example of the ‘slippery slope’ argument in action. After much controversy permission is given for a fundamental principle to be breached (the sanctity of human life) because it is felt to be justified by some imminent greater good (cures for hitherto intractable diseases). In the event no cures have been forthcoming, but the loophole has meantime been exploited for a completely different end with no direct relevance to the alleviation of human suffering. In the forthcoming debate on the replacement for FP7, which has been christened ‘Horizon 2020’ by the European Commission, the opportunity should be taken to close this loophole, which has failed to serve the purpose for which it was created in the teeth of strong ethical objection, and funding instead be devoted to the more promising field of therapies using adult stem cells, including induced pluripotent cells.