Monday, 1 August 2011

"A Gigantic Slaughterhouse ..."

Two giants bestriding the scientific world stand out in my memories of the 80s and 90s when we were fighting the legalisation of the use of the human embryo as a guinea pig. They are the late Professors Jérôme Lejeune and Erwin Chargaff. How right their predictions were on the brutalisation of society’s attitudes towards the tiniest human (the human embryo) can be seen from the data published as a result of Parliamentary Questions tabled by Lord David Alton (see pg. 131) in the Lords before the summer recess.

The replies show that since 1991 when the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act came into force, 3,144,386 embryos have been created in UK laboratories. A total of 1,455,832 embryos were discarded in the course of treatment. 101,605 were given for research in destructive experiments. 764,311 were frozen for later use. And I am quite sure that is only the tip of the iceberg.

So far as the creation and destruction of human embryos are concerned, any that are deemed to be under par in anyway are simply thrown away without being recorded. During the same period from 1991 to 2010 only 94,090 embryos have been successfully implanted into women resulting in live births, demonstrating that at least 32 embryos are created for every one live baby born. The answers also exposed that 155 ‘admixed’ embryos (animal/human) have been produced, in the last three years since the 2008 Human Fertilisation Embryology Act came into force. This legalised the creation of a variety of hybrids, including an animal egg fertilised by a human sperm; ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell; and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos. The story made front page banner headlines in the Daily Mail – but it was no surprise to pro-lifers – like David Alton  who fought against both the 1990 and 2007 Acts when they were debated in Parliament. As long ago as 1987, it was predicted by the Scientific Advisory Committee to the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPPLG).

Professor Erwin Chargaff, an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazi tyranny, predicted what would happen if we adopted the recommendations of the Warnock Committee on Human Fertilisation & Embryology... using words which make the headline for this blog. Chargaff was described in the Guardian’s obituary as “one of the giants of the world of biochemistry”. He was without doubt one of the foremost scientists of the twentieth century. I first heard of him when I received a telephone call from Professor Jérôme Lejeune from Paris stressing I should contact him. Jérôme Lejeune had first gained international fame in 1958 when he discovered that the Trisomy 21 genetic defect was responsible for Down’s syndrome, the first-ever genetic disease to be identified. He went on to make many further discoveries. He also was a world name – and I am proud to say that I had known him for many years.

When in the ‘eighties we formed the Scientific Advisory Committee to the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group he was one of the first people we invited and he accepted without hesitation. Their first task was to combat the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Report (1984), in reality a pathetic document which abounded in baseless claims and promises – but held overwhelming influence. Professor Lejeune had telephoned to tell me of a paper he had just read by Erwin Chargaff which completely opposed the use of IVF and the use of the human embryo as a  guinea pig. “You must ask him to join us”, I was told, “I regard him as one of the greatest biochemists ever. They cannot ignore him”. 

“They”, of course, were the public and international politicians. Chargaff was best known for his work in genetics, involving research into the chemical composition of DNA. His discoveries provided the groundwork for the greatest discovery of 20th-century biology – formulating the model of DNA, showing how genetic inheritance could pass from one generation to the next. It was for this that Francis Crick and James Watson won the Nobel Prize.

To this day, there is considerable controversy as to why Chargaff  was not included in the award (a fact noted in the Guardian obituary). In just the same way, Lejeune – often described as the “father of genetics” – was also denied the Nobel Prize. However, both men were far too open about the brutality developing in science and medicine and the arrogance of many scientists ever to have been considered by the Nobel Prize Committee. From the 1950s onwards, Chargaff had become increasingly outspoken about the manner in which molecular biology was running riot and doing things that could never be justified.

He believed that it was dangerous when “humans believe that the world is a machine, even assuming that humans can have full knowledge of its workings”. He warned that “the technology of genetic engineering poses a greater threat to the world than the advent of nuclear technology. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I only wish that mine had not been guilty of it”. Lejeune’s views were also completely opposed  to the scientific elite of the day. Many of his dearest and closest friends were among his Down’s Syndrome patients and their families. The idea that abortion provided an answer to Down’s Syndrome was anathema to him as was the idea of using human embryos as guinea pigs to find a treatment.

At the time we first contacted him, Erwin Chargaff was Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Columbia University and I was able to track down his telephone number in New York. He was then in his early ‘eighties and had just recovered from a serious illness. He would do anything to help us he told me but in coming to London he needed his wife to come with him as he was still too weak after his illness to travel alone. I will always remember his words: “I have seen it all before, my dear”. He and his wife, Vera, were small physically. Yet, they struck us all as giants in their determination to defend the human embryo. He was an Austrian Jew and had emigrated from his homeland to America at the onset of the Nazi era. His work in biochemistry won him many international awards, including the Pasteur Medal (1949) and the National Medal of Science (1974).

For all their achievements both Chargaff and Lejeune were men of great humility. Professor Lejeune was a devout Catholic – but I have no idea about the beliefs of Professor Chargaff: I know he was of Jewish origin but whether he practiced or came to any other faith I cannot say. However, I do know that both men stood in awe of the wonder of human life which they regarded as a great mystery. They also regarded embryos as much their brothers and sisters as the rest of us. The fact that the embryo was so tiny inspired greater awe in them rather than diminishing their respect and care. That the embryonic Einstein (no bigger than a dot) contained every attribute  necessary to make his achievements they both found overwhelming.

In comparison, when Crick and Watson won the Nobel Prize for describing DNA one would have thought they were responsible for its creation rather than unraveling part of  a great mystery. Another Nobel Prize Winner, Dr. Robert G. Edwards, the doctor who developed the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) technique, was equally arrogant as well as being very crude. Rather than evolving the technology to enable the sperm to fertilise an ovum outside the body he behaved as though he had actually created and invented life itself. Like Crick and Watson, he made it clear he could see nothing wrong in pouring embryos down the sink, aborting babies on whatever ground  and if there might be anything wrong with them  well, get rid of them and start again. In developing the procedure he practiced using his own sperm to fertilise ova and then poured the products away.

The Scientific Advisory Committee to the APPPLG were convinced that the prestigious journal, Nature, would not ignore a paper on the possible dangers and consequences of IVF and the use of the human embryo as a guinea pig, written by Erwin Chargaff. They were right. His paper, Engineering a Molecular Nightmare, was published May 21st, 1987. We used it very widely and every MP received a copy of a booklet published by the APPPLG, Upholding Human Dignity: Ethical Alternatives to Human Embryo Research to which the three contributors were Professor Lejeune, Professor Chargaff and Dr. John McLean (an English doctor of standing).

Professor Chargaff’s contribution was the reproduction of his paper from Nature  a quite deliberate act, planned from the beginning. It meant that the crude elements dominating the lobby wanting the human embryo as a guinea pig, could not, in effect, attack a journal of such eminence. Otherwise, there is no doubt that they would have been abused in every possible measure – regardless of what Lejeune and Chargaff had achieved throughout their lives. Nonetheless, they were ignored by a majority in Parliament who listened instead to the buffooneries of Robert Edwards, and the late Professor Ann McLaren who invented the term “pre-embryo” to bamboozle the public into believing that up to fourteen days the human embryo could not qualify as a member of the human family.

In his paper, Chargaff pointed out that the giant strides science had made in modern times were “composed of an infinity of tiny steps”. He expressed concern regarding unknown consequences of the process of  in-vitro fertilisation on the embryo: “In the normal conception the female egg is confronted with a very large number of viable spermatozoa”, he wrote. “FertilisatIon could then appear as a purely random event, or, alternatively, it could be looked upon as a process in which the egg selects the sperm cell with which to fuse. This is not a metaphysical quibble, though it may be an as yet unanswerable question...”

Whether it is an unanswerable question we have no idea. The powers that be have never bothered to do any long-term investigations. Although we know that the incidence of disability is higher in IVF babies, no research has ever been conducted to find out what other consequences there might be: it could be generations before we find out anything. “Helping a few couples condemned to childlessness towards getting a child may strike the obstetrical cytologist as such a laudable step”, he wrote, “but we can see the beginning of human husbandry, of industrial breeding factories.  ... Who can deny the scientific interest attaching to the production of chimaeras, to the study of human embryonic growth in an animal uterus? ... What I see coming is a gigantic slaughterhouse, a molecular Auschwitz, in which valuable enzymes, hormones and so on will be extracted instead of gold teeth.”

However, as the very reason the scientific world wanted to get its hands on embryonic human beings was to cannibalise them, their claims as to the miracle cures they would perform became more and more extravagant in order to blind the public. Newspapers and politicians lapped up their stories without ever checking the facts. Even today, the scientists involved in embryo production make exactly the same promises: their work will find cures for the incurable. Yet, in the last 23 years, the relentless and destructive experiments on human embryos have produced not one treatment or cure of any disease. Neither has the equally destructive work in producing human embryos for stem cells. There have been around 75 treatments developed as a result of stem cell work.

In every case – without exception – real progress has been achieved through the use of adult stem cells;  stem cells developed from adult skin or other  tissue or from umbilical cord blood – all of which can be done without any controversy or any form of abusive treatment of human life. The latest revelations have come almost at exactly the same time as a committee of scientists warned of “a nightmare ‘Planet of the Apes’ scenario”, in which work on human-animal creations goes too far.

Last year, more than one million experiments were carried out on genetically modified animals – mostly mice and fish carrying human DNA. As a result, the Academy of Medical Scientists set up a review to examine the growing number of any such experiments in which scientists add human genes or tissue to animals. Their Report called for a new body of experts within the Home Office to monitor the experiments. The Report’s co-author is Professor Martin Bobrow, a medical geneticist at Cambridge University, who said: “Society needs to set rules before scientists begin experiments that the public would find unacceptable. We are trying to get this out in the open before anything has happened. Martin Bobrow has served for many years on various committees of the Medical Research Council and from the late ‘eighties was certainly among those who opposed Lejeune and Chargaff. He opposed all their attempts to prevent scientists from using the human embryo as a guinea pig. He is quite definitely in the liberal camp. For him to call “Halt! – I find somewhat frightening, and cannot help wondering just what has alerted him and his friends on the Academy of Medical Scientists.

Moreover, the statement in their report that most of the experiments raise no ethical or legal concerns reminds me somewhat of George Bernard Shaw’s quotation: “The one thing you learn from experience is that you do not learn from experience.” However, so far as the pro-life movement is concerned we should rather keep in mind Abraham Lincoln’s summary:  “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time – but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. Today, each of us has a duty. We have to collect the evidence David Alton has given us through his parliamentary questions. We have to present it to our MPs  and we have to deliberately present any further evidence to them. We also have to bring to their attention the warnings from Professor Bobrow and his committee of liberals.

We know that we will not convince everybody – but in the ultimate we should at least try to convince a majority of  our MPs if only on the grounds of  the millions of pounds being wasted on so-called research in the present economic climate. Perhaps respect for human life will come later and bring with it love for our embryonic brothers and sisters.