Following the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s decision to approve the creation of ‘animal-human’ hybrid embryos, or “cybrids”, the inaugural episode of the BBC’s new ethics show The Big Questions (BBC1, Sunday Sept 9th 2007, 10 am) included a fifteen minute debate on the topic. The programme provides some useful material for discussing the issue.
This initial post outlines the thrust of the discussion. Interested readers are strongly encouraged to look at the extended commentary Science and ethics of cybrids – reflections on some recent media coverage, which includes not only a fuller account of the exchanges on The Big Questions, but also draws upon a similar discussion on The Guardian’s Science Weekly Podcast of September 10th. The relevance of a number of recent scientific papers on the biology of stem cells is also considered. You may also like to watch a BBC news report following the announcement – go to their News page ‘Human-animal’ embryo green light and follow the ‘Watch’ link on the right-hand side.
On The Big Questions, host Nicky Campbell put the question “Are hybrid embryos an ethical step too far?” The panellists for this discussion (from 25:00 to 40:40) were Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell, Jonathan Bartley, co-Director of Christian think-tank Ekklesia, and Dr Alice Roberts of Bristol University. Audience participation came primarily from Evan Harris MP, who has been very active in the campaign to overturn the original ban on this technique, Catholic ethicist Prof David Jones, and from two individuals who have a direct interest in the research as a consequence of either their own illness or that of a close family member.
The discussion had two main foci. Firstly, the status of any ‘hybrid’ organism was considered (including the suggestion that neither ‘hybrid’ nor ‘chimera’ were really appropriate descriptions, hence the coining of the phrase ‘cytoplasmic hybrid’ or ‘cybrid’ instead). Secondly, do the potential therapeutic benefits justify carrying out research on such creatures? Inevitably, the answers to the first question have a significant bearing upon the answers to the second.
I can see the episode offering huge potential with an RE class, or Citizenship and/or General Studies as a route into different philosophical approaches. At its crudest we see the classic clash between deontological viewpoints, as espoused by Jones, Platell and Bartley, versus utilitarian (consequentialist) approaches, as modelled by Harris and Roberts. The two sides are not only disagreeing, they are speaking in different languages, so a consensus is never going to arise. With a class who had previously been exposed to some background in philosophy, I’d like to show the whole 15 minute section and then use it as a discussion for the rest of the lesson (having forewarned them, of course, what to be looking out for whilst viewing the clip).
For fuller consideration of the programme and other recent developments in the field, please see the associated extended commentary Science and ethics of cybrids – reflections on some recent media coverage. The TRILT code for off-air recordings of The Big Questions is 0008D257.