UK scientists can’t wait to get their hands on thousands of frozen human embryos

It’s hard to find a better case study of how experts exploit the media and democratic procedures to advance unethical agendas than the push in the United Kingdom to create “embryo banks” for scientific research.

This might seem like a niche topic, but bear with us. Stupendously important issues concerning human dignity are at stake.

The story begins with an unexpected setback for stem cell scientists in the UK. According to a report in The Guardian, donations of “spare” IVF human embryos to scientific research have nosedived over the past 15 years. The latest available figures show that 17,925 embryos were donated in 2004, and only 675 in 2019.

The reasons for the decline are complex. The Guardian cites “increasing commercialisation of IVF, overstretched NHS [National Health Service] clinics and cumbersome paperwork.” 

Where do these embryos come from? When couples begin the IVF process, their clinics create a number of embryos. One or two are implanted and the “spares” are frozen. According to The Times (London), 100,000 embryos are created every year in the UK. A 2021 study estimated that half a million embryos are now in storage.

Let that sink in. There are half a million human beings at the most vulnerable stage of their life -- frozen in canisters of liquid nitrogen. Do we uphold human dignity by assuming that the best use for them is to turn them into raw material for scientists to tinker with?

Why do scientists want them? Embryo research is heavily regulated in the UK, but they are in great demand for investigating human development, testing drugs, and researching genetic disease. They are a valuable commodity.

Leading stem cell scientist Kathy Niakan, of the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian that she is frustrated at the waste of premier research material. “There are tens of thousands of good quality embryos that are no longer needed by patients which could be incredibly valuable for research,” she said.

Another reason is prestige. The UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, supports the country’s science establishment. It is lobbying for changes to embryo regulation to make their work more productive. The HFEA says that “There is now a risk that the UK could lose its world-leading status in this area if changes are not considered.”

Amongst the 15 changes proposed by the HFEA is the creation of an embryo bank – a kind of warehouse to which couples can donate embryos so that scientists won’t risk losing their “world-leading status”. At the moment, couples must consent to specific research projects. It would be far easier for the scientists if they could just donate to an embryo bank which would allocate them as required.

This is creepy. Hundreds of thousands of frozen human embryos will be catalogued and pigeonholed so that researchers can use them to further the UK’s scientific prestige. Even the HFEA must realise that this will be a hard sell. Often the couples find the decision distressing and put it off as long as possible. Whatever their views on personhood, those embryos were part of their dreams for forming a family. So the scientists and HFEA have embarked upon a cynical public relations campaign with three strategies.  



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First, shameless schmalz in the media.

In The Guardian Professor Niakan painted a bleak picture of crippled research programmes and emotionally traumatised patients. “Some [patients] had to go through counselling because it’s taken so long for them to be able to fulfil their wishes to donate to research. Some of them have paid extra storage fees just to give time for the whole process and all the paperwork to go through,” she said. “They shouldn’t be put in that position. Somebody needs to step in and make it a lot easier.”

Unsurprisingly, the credulous journalist did not ask how many of these patients had been emotionally traumatised. Probably very few, if any. It’s more likely that the scientists were because their research plans were frustrated. This is yellow journalism.

Second, a democratic fig leaf.  

The HFEA conducted a major consultation to strengthen its case for an embryo bank. They asked people to comment on the proposal. A total of 5,860 responses was received.

Professor Niakan and the HFEA claimed that about half of embryo donors and medical professionals supported this. A summary cited encouragement from leading lobbyists for the science establishment – the Wellcome Trust, the Progress Educational Trust, the Medical Research Council, and an “award-winning” sperm bank.  The HFEA concluded that: “Overall, there was some support for generic consent to research embryo banking due to the challenges of the current consent to research regime.”

However, the consultation actually found that the public was by no means supportive; 86% were opposed to research embryo banking. A closer look at the HFEA’s bar chart suggest that even support from medical professionals and patients was lukewarm – only about 50% supported it.

The conclusion to be drawn from this bogus survey is not that the public is in favour, but that the more people know about an embryo bank, the less they like it.

It doesn't matter, though, because the HFEA gets to define who the “public” is. It dismissed the 86% as “an organised response reflecting wider opposition to the use of human embryos in research”. So what was the point of this sham “consultation” if the public was going to be ignored? 

Bertolt Brecht's savage aphorism comes to mind. "Would it not be simpler" than messy democratic debates, he wrote, if the government "dissolved the people and elected another one?"

Embryo banking is just one of a raft of the HFEA’s proposals which it has submitted to the government to “future-proof” embryo legislation.

And this leads to the third strategy: Orwellian manipulation of language.

“Future-proofing” sounds prudent and sensible. But it effectively means removing regulation of embryo research from Parliament and handing it over to the HFEA. “Regulating for the future, then, in this most sensitive of areas, is why we have proposed flexibility rather than new specific limits, so that the law can keep pace with the scientific, social and technological changes that we can’t even begin yet to imagine,” said the HFEA Chair, Julia Chain.

But this future includes such developments as: sperm and eggs created from stem cells; genetic engineering; growing embryos in Petri dishes for an unlimited time span; combining human and animal cells; and altering the human genome.

A modicum of respect for human life in its embryonic stage requires that democratically elected representatives decide whether such sensitive research should be allowed, not faceless bureaucrats.

UK voters should not allow themselves to be hoodwinked once again by their scientists.  

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 

Image credits: Pixlr AI generated


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