The Roman Catholic Bishops of England (RCBE) have told the UK parliament that inter-species embryos - those containing genetic information from both human and animals - should not be treated any differently from 'normal' embryos, and that women should be given the chance to carry their genetic offspring to term.
There is currently a real shortage of human eggs for use in embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. It is hoped the problem can be overcome through creating embryos by transferring human genetic material into 'hollowed out' animal eggs. The resulting entity - a 'cybrid' - would be over 99 per cent genetically human and less than one per cent animal. As it stands, the new draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill will ban the creation of embryos that contain genetic material from both animals and humans, but will make an exception for certain types of research, including cybrid embryos. The draft Bill imposes a strict 14 day time limit on the use of these entities in research, at which point they must be destroyed.
The RCBE and the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics told the parliamentary committee who are scrutinising the draft Bill: 'At the very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings, and should be treated accordingly. In particular, it should not be a crime to transfer them, or other human embryos, to the body of the women providing the ovum (egg), in cases where a human ovum has been used to create them'.
The RCBE have been accused of misunderstanding the science involved in creating such embryos. Cybrid embryos will have no 'mother'; rather, an animal ovum will be stripped of its genetic identity and used as an empty vessel to cultivate human ES cells from cloned human cells. It is hoped that such research will lead to advances in treatment for devastating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Liberal Democrat MP, Dr Evan Harris, has described the RCBE's position as 'absurd' and 'inconsistent', adding: 'Most of these embryos will be created using animal eggs, but even if they were created using human eggs, they would be created by cloning and the Catholic Church has previously opposed reproductive cloning of even fully human embryos'.