Bishop says embryos used in landmark study ‘gave no consent’

Catholic Church concerned over US study that removed mutations

Embryonic research: scientists believe “editing” human genomes could also work for other conditions caused by mutations such as cystic fibrosis and some breast cancers. Photograph: Alan Betson

Embryonic research: scientists believe “editing” human genomes could also work for other conditions caused by mutations such as cystic fibrosis and some breast cancers. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Catholic Church in Ireland has voiced its total opposition to the use of embryos in research following a breakthrough study by scientists who “edited” human genomes to remove mutations linked to heart failure.

Scientists believe such “editing” could also work for other conditions caused by single gene mutations such as cystic fibrosis and some breast cancers.

None of the research so far has involved the birth of babies from the modified embryos.

However, Bishop Kevin Doran, chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Consultative Group on Bioethics and Life Questions, said – as part of the research – human embryos were “being deliberately generated under laboratory conditions with a higher than average risk of congenital heart disease”.

They were being “deprived of any other purpose than to be used for research and then disposed of”, he told The Irish Times.

“These individual human beings are all the more entitled to protection precisely because they do not yet have the capacity to speak for themselves or to give their consent.”

His comments come as an Irish expert on genetic law warned that Ireland had no concrete legal framework to deal with these issues, and was effectively operating in a regulatory vacuum.

Dr Aisling de Paor, a law lecturer in Dublin City University, said the new research was a “game-changer” in scientific and ethical terms but Ireland was ill-prepared to deal its implications.

Setting out the church’s stance, Bishop Doran said: “Medical intervention on human embryos should only be permitted if it is designed to protect the life and health of the specific embryo being treated.”

This position is contained in the bishops’ submission to the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction in 2003.

‘Gravely immoral’

More recently, in its New Charter for Healthcare Workers, the Vatican said it was “gravely immoral to sacrifice a human life for therapeutic ends”, the bishop said.

That charter stated: “To create embryos with the intention of destroying them, even with the intention of helping the sick, is completely incompatible with human dignity, because it makes the existence of a human being at the embryonic stage nothing more than a means to be used and destroyed.”

This, Bishop Doran said, reflected “the consistent belief of the church that ‘a human embryo has, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person’.”

It was the case, he said, that “the development of modern medicine would have been impossible without biomedical research. All of us who use antibiotics, vaccines and various forms of medical technology have reason to be grateful, not only to those who carry out the research but to those who freely consent to participate in clinical trials, in the hope that they can contribute to the health of humanity,” he said.

“Biomedical research can only truly serve humanity, however, if it respects the dignity of each human person who is involved in the research.”

The essential principles governing biomedical research were “best expressed in the Declaration of Helsinki, first agreed by the World Medical Association in 1964 and most recently amended in 2013.

“Any person on whom a new drug or technology is tested must be fully informed of the risks involved and must have freely consented to participate. Biomedical research must always be directed by a medical doctor, whose first responsibility is to the health and safety of human subject [the person involved in the trial],” he said.