Creating a Child to Save Another? I Don't like It ; (1) Fertility Expert Robert Winston Admits for the First Time He Has Grave Concerns about So-Called Saviour Siblings - Even Though He Supported the Controversial Embryology Bill This Week(2) 'I'm Unhappy These Children Could Be Put under Undue Pressure to Give Bone Marrow or Organs in Short Used for Spare Parts'
Cohen, David, The Evening Standard (London, England)
PROFESSOR ROBERT WINSTON, one of the most eminent supporters of the Government's controversial fertilisation and embryology bill, has admitted "grave reservations" about a section of the bill that will allow the creation of "saviour siblings" in Britain for the first time.
"To be frank, I do not like the idea that a child might be created to be used as a commodity to save an older brother or sister," he says, speaking to the Evening Standard on the terrace of the House of
Lords where he sits as a Labour peer. His concerns reflect Immanuel Kant's dictum that "one has no right to treat another human being as a mere means to an end" which underpins morality in liberal Western democracies.
"My first worry is the psychological risk to the saviour sibling. It's an awful situation when you have to tell a child they were born to save another. We don't yet know how that will turn out but the psychological damage could be profound. I'm also unhappy that saviour siblings could be put under undue pressure to give bone marrow or organs in short used as a source of spare parts to help a sick sibling survive." The bill, which was passed on Monday night, also allows the creation of hybrid embryos. It received the personal backing of Tory leader David Cameron, who cited the case of his own son Ivan who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Prof Winston, 67, the renowned professor of human fertility whose iconic bushy moustache makes him instantly recognisable, says the technology to create saviour siblings is at such an early stage that it is "more likely to fail than to succeed" and that in any event, "only children dying from rare cellular diseases with a single gene defect" can be helped.
To create a saviour sibling, he explains, involves taking five or six embryos from the mother, removing a cell from each to find one that's not got the defective gene, re-testing it to see if the gene set is compatible with the sick sibling then reinserting that embryo in the uterus in the hope that it becomes a viable foetus. "So far, there's only been about four saviour siblings created worldwide, so contrary to the hype, you can see how rare they are." Indeed, in a dramatic week for medical science in the Commons, the real advance, he insists, is quite different to what many "over-passionate reformers" tout it to be.
Hybrid embryos, the part-human-partanimal embryos hailed by some modernisers as critical to rolling back the boundaries of medical science and dicovering new cures for diseases, are actually a storm in a teacup, he says, and "not important at all" in the scale of stem cell research.
Unlike ordinary cells that have a particular purpose that cannot be changed, stem cells, he explains, are at an early stage of development and retain the potential to turn into different types of cell, raising the possibility that they can be used as a "repair- kit" to replace parts of the body damaged by disease.
However, hybrid embryos, which involve injecting DNA from adult human cells into a hollowed-out cow or rabbit egg to observe how they develop and which would not be allowed to develop beyond 14 days in the lab comprise a tiny subset of stem cell research whose medical benefits are "worth pursuing but, as yet, unproven".
On the other hand, he says, the vote allowing access to IVF treatment for women without the requirement to consider the child's need for a father is a hugely significant change that will have "immediate far-reaching ramifications" for our society.
Prof Winston's maverick views may not be welcomed by some of his liberal colleagues who will point out that he's made 30 speeches in support of the new legislation. They won't be surprised though: a rationalist and orthodox Jew living in Hampstead Garden Suburb with his wife, Lira Helen Feigenbaum, with whom he has three children, he is known to steer his own course between "atheist scientists" such as Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) whom he has criticised as "arrogant", and "didactic Catholic traditionalists" whom he describes to me as "stuck in the 19th century". …