Repugnance is not an argument. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” –Dr Leon Kass. Former Chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics

The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has confirmed that forthcoming legislation is set to regulate for a range of practices for the first time, including gamete (sperm or egg) donation and embryo donation for Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) and research.

The legislation is also set to allow for ‘posthumous gamete donation’ which permits the surviving partner of a deceased person to utilise that deceased person’s ‘frozen’ sperm or eggs for the purposes of creating a child.

There is no area of the proposed legislation that does not give rise to profound ethical concerns.

What is deeply alarming from a ‘conservative’ bioethical perspective is the fact that nothing in the state’s recent history gives us any hope that this legislation will be measured or cautious.

Indeed this state has recently displayed an unnerving pathological insecurity in terms of its rush to hurl itself into ethical alignment with a particularly deficient conception of modernity.

Caution of course is not a virtue in and of itself. Innovation and enterprise are vital even in areas like biotechnology.

That should not mean however that what is technically possible should therefore become legally permissible (yes legal positivists, I am talking to you!).

To give a more definite shape to what I mean, let us examine the issue of embryo donation for research purposes, and review it in the light of one potential application: the creation of human/animal hybrids.

A hybrid is produced by the cross fertilisation of two different species where the resulting entity has a mixture of nuclear genes from both ‘parents.’

On the face of it this is something entirely different from the deliberate creation of human life which is expressly prohibited by the Medical Council’s Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners (2016). The Guide states that registered medical practitioners “must not take part in the creation of new forms of human life solely for experimental purposes”.

The issue that any future legislation must engage with however, and one that is likely to be profoundly problematic, is the criteria that will be employed to determine what is or is not “a new form of human life.”

From an embryological perspective, almost all of the evidence to date suggests that the government or its delegated bioethics body would limit legal protections for human life to the period from 14 days after initial conception.

The view may then be taken that prior to this point the fusion of gametes simply results in a ‘cluster of cells’ and is therefore a legitimate and even ‘necessary’ research resource.

If that does turn out to be the case then it becomes more likely that the path toward the creation of human/animal hybrids will be seen as scientifically permissible.

It must be stated of course that not all mixtures of human and animal cell types ought to be prohibited.  In fact there are perhaps thousands of existing procedures which mix human and animal biological material that give rise to only limited ethical concern.

One of the most famous instances is the so called “OncoMouse” that has been used by Harvard researchers to investigate the causes of cancer since 1988.

This is also true for the transplantation of animal organs into the human body.

From the standpoint of Catholic medical ethics, Pius XII laid out very clear criteria on this matter as far back as 1956 when he taught that such transplants are morally acceptable on three conditions:

(1) the transplanted organ does not impair the integrity of the genetic or psychological identity of the recipient, (2) the transplant has a proven biological record of possible success, and (3) the transplant does not involve inordinate risk for the recipient.  (Pius XII, Address to the Italian Association of Cornea Donors and to Clinical Oculists and Legal Medical Practitioners, May 14, 1956.)

What is interesting about these remarks is the connection that is drawn between the mixture of human and animal material and the “integrity of the genetic or psychological identity of the recipient.”

This is the troubling and controversial core issue at the heart of the human-animal hybrid debate.

In the US, The National Academies Press, who advises the federal government on scientific matters, highlighted this concern in its 2005 Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research:

“Research in which animal or human embryonic stem cells are introduced into human blastocysts, should also not be conducted at this time. These kinds of studies could produce creatures in which the lines between human and nonhuman primates are blurred, a development that could threaten to undermine human dignity.” 

This is an aspect of the debate that we urgently need to engage in here in Ireland.

The question remains whether considerations of a more utilitarian or even commercial viewpoint will prevail?

In a regulatory environment in which the human embryo is increasingly seen as biological material and not a being of intrinsic value the answer must surely be yes.

I suggest that this is something all of us who espouse conservative values need to reflect on.