Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Embryology Debate

Tomorrow in the House of Commons, members of Parliament will be debating a genuinely life-changing topic. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has proved to be one of the most difficult pieces of legislation for years and, with a free vote on several of the more controversial aspects, there’s going to be a lot of heart-searching in Westminster.

For once Newcastle is right at the centre of this national debate, because it’s here that a team of scientists is working at the cutting edge of research into currently incurable conditions such as Alzheimer’s. In the last decade these researchers have succeeded in moving science forward so fast that the law, last debated in 1990, is now out of date. They are seeking a legal framework within which to continue their revolutionary work. And one of the key elements is the ability to utilize animal eggs (with 99% of genetic material removed, and a single human cell nucleus added) to replace a chronic shortage of human eggs.

Last week Joanna and I came face to face with one of the reasons for this shortage. For some time she and I have been trying to have a baby, and we have now turned for help to the fertility specialists at Newcastle’s Life Centre. As a result, not only are we waiting on tenterhooks for news of whether or not our current round of IVF treatment has been successful (sadly, there’s only a 25% chance it will be), but also we are now proud owners of six first class frozen embryos. During the IVF process, however, the treatment caused Jo to produce over thirty eggs. We happily signed the clause on our clearance forms to donate our unused eggs and embryos to enable the Newcastle researchers to continue their work. I doubt there are many readers of this blog who have not experienced close family members afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or some form of cancer. We believe we owe it to our children and grandchildren to do whatever we can to support genetic research to enable science to conquer these terrible afflictions.

However, the consequence of Joanna generating so many spare eggs (we jokingly dubbed her the “mother hen” for the first couple of days after we learned the news) was that she ended up in unbelievable pain, potentially life-threatening discomfort and a spell in the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Jo was suffering from Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), an affliction which affects a small proportion of all IVF patients, and which can even prove fatal. It’s not something I would wish to inflict on my worst enemy, and it was frightening to see Jo, her stomach distended as if she were seven months’ pregnant, doubled up in agony, her blood dehydrating by the hour. In order to prevent women enduring this dangerous side effect, the fertility experts are trying to reduce the number of eggs produced during the IVF process. However this in turn reduces the number of spare eggs that can be used in medical research. Hence the vital importance of this part of the legislation being debated today.

Reactionary religious leaders tend to set themselves and their congregations against anything that seems to challenge the biblical account of creation. Others fear giving power-crazed scientists a charter to meddle in things spiritual. But this bill has come about because the scientists in Newcastle and elsewhere want boundaries to be set. It’s a debate about regulation, not permission. I do respect the views of those who oppose it on religious grounds, but to describe it, as one reactionary clergyman has done, as “endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion” is to miss the point.

This law has been created with the sole aim of saving lives. The moral argument in favour is overwhelming. I hope our MPs are persuaded to vote for the proper regulation of a science that is dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering. For the sake of all our children.