Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Embryos and Parliament - Part Two

So as my last blog entry suggests (blimey, six months without a peep and then two posts in two days - I'd say something about London buses but with BoJo in da house I'd only end up a seething wreck hurling my keyboard at the screen...), I went to the pro-science rally in support of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Here's why I think my experiences deserve a whole second entry!

Whilst the likes of Dr. Evan Harris MP and Dr. Ian Gibson MP were fulfilling their media obligations, I was approached by a young lady who introduced herself as a lawyer interested in the Bill. She offered me a leaflet, which I've scanned and reproduced in all its glory above. It appears as thought religionists had infiltrated the ranks of the Geek! We had an interesting discussion, and to be fair to the young lady she was calm, well-spoken, apparently open to a scientific approach... oh, and wrong.

Her objections to the Bill were many. Firstly,n she said, just because scientists can do something, doens't mean they should. Correct in many ways, and a sentiment echoed in the House of Commons chamber, in those exact words, by Andrew Lansley MP as he spoke to table amendments. Fair enough, I retorted, but that's simply a statement, and in itself is not a reason not to progress with scientific advances - of course if there are sufficient reasons not to proceed, be they ethical, moral or otherwise, then so be it, I said. Aaah, said our friend, but just because they can doesn't mean they should... Hmmm...

Then, what amounted to a straw man was waved in front of me. Ten years, she said, ten years people have worked with embryonic stem cells, and not one treatment has come about yet! Why should we support such an inefficient avenue of research when it's such an ethical minefield...! Now, if you'd read my recent post on what I do for a living, you'll recall that I'm involved in gene therapy. In drug development, ten years is not, repeat not, a long time - in fact, for a biological therapy, it would be a short time... Just goes to show how heightened expectations can lead to misconceptions and gross distortions - just because it's taken ten years so far, doesn't mean the route to discovering new stem cell-based therapies is fatuous!

Her next argument saddened me. Amongst the scientists, MPs and media folk present at yesterday's rally, were members of patient support groups representing societies and charities for diverse life-threatening and debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's and Motor Neurone Disease - indeed, several patients attended. Knowing this, our Christian Lawyer (for by know it had become apparent that she objected to embryonic stem cell research and abortion largely on religious grounds - shock...!) actually said the following:

But should science proceed at all costs? Should we pursue stem cell research at all costs?

As I looked at her quizzically, she continued,

I mean, what about the cost to human dignity...?

Human dignity...?! I almost choked. Here we were, able-bodied and sound of mind, in the presence of people with devastating neurodegenerative disease who were wheelchair-bound, losing control over bodily functions and gradually becoming vegetative, here we are with our faculties intact, and we pontificate over how using embryonic stem cells would diminish human dignity...?!! God, I thought, give me strength... oh, wait...

Then it struck me. Science and medicine want to research all possible avenues to help understand and treat conditions that strike at the heart of what it is to be human. Whilst those opposed to such research use their supposition of what it is to be human to deny these same people the chance to have their lives improved, all because of what was written thousands of years ago in a book (or books) they have chosen to believe in.

In the end it was (somewhat oddly) a Conservative MP, our friend Mr. Lansley, who put it succinctly - and, courtesy of Hansard, I quote:

Although research on reprogramming adult stem cells is encouraging, it would be foolhardy to block embryonic stem cell research and ... We should be careful not to preclude different models of research that have the potential to deliver effective therapies for life-threatening diseases.

In other words, whilst pursuing other sources of therapeutic cells, we must not prevent research into embryonic stem cells as they are potentially beneficial. Succinct, true, and well said. Well done that man, if only others agreed...

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