News from the Field - Winter 2002

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The Future of Frozen Embryos

The question of whether frozen embryos should be given a chance to develop remains a hot topic in the news. In Britain, two cases in which the mothers want to preserve the embryos while the fathers want the embryos destroyed are heading to court. Natalie Evans had some of her eggs removed and fertilized with her fiancé’s sperm before undergoing treatment for cancer. Now that she and her fiancé have split up, the father wants the embryos destroyed. Evans believes that implanting the embryos would provide her with her only chance to become a moth er. In another case, Lorraine Hadley has two frozen embryos whom her ex-husband wants destroyed. Both Ms. Evans and Ms. Hadley are now infertile. In Britain, both mother and father must give consent for the storage and use of embryos. The women are arguing that the law discriminates against them.

In other news, the White House approved nearly $1 million to support public education about embryo adoption—the process where “surplus” embryos are donated to other infertile couples for implantation. This option was first offered by Christian Nightlight Adoptions”Snowflake” pro gram. Critics charge that “adopting” embryos is an under handed attempt to give legal/moral status to the human embryo and ultimately to undermine the legality of abortion. Supporters point out that there is nothing wrong with providing embryos who would otherwise be destroyed the opportunity to be adopted into a loving family.

Government Research Committee Urges Caution on Creating Gene-Altered Animals

A U.S. government research panel of scientists has issued a report urging more caution concerning the creation of genetically-altered animals. The 12-member panel expressed its gravest concerns over the risk of releasing genetically-altered organisms into the environment where they could cause havoc on the ecosystem, possibly wiping out entire species. The committee also expressed reservation over the entrance of products such as meat and milk derived from transgenic animals (animals with genetic code from another species spliced into its DNA) into the food supply.The panelists were concerned about the possibility that severe allergic reactions to the products might be experienced by some of the population. Questions were also raised concerning government regulation of this area. Participants worried that the responsibility for enforcement is currently spread over too many government agencies to be effective.

UK Denies Permission to Create “Designer” Baby

The UK’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has declined a British couple’s request to genetically screen their embryos as a means of increasing the likelihood that a child able to donate life-saving tissue to their seriously ill son will be born. (The child can only be treated with umbilical cord stem cells obtained from a perfectly matched donor.) The HFEA argued that such screening is “unlawful and unethical” because genetic screening in the UK is only allowed in conjunction with testing to ensure the embryo does not have a genetic disease. The couple’s ill son suffers from Diamond-Blackfan anemia, a disease that is not inherited (and therefore would not likely affect future children) and for which screening tests are not available. In 2001, the HFEA allowed a different couple to genetically screen their embryos for a tissue match for their son who suffered from thalassemia, a fatal blood disorder that is inherited. he debate is now over whether the HFEA has too much authority to make these types of decisions and whether Parliament should be making more of the decisions. The HEFA is a body of appointed officials with no direct public accountability for their decisions

Swiss City Poised to Become Assisted Suicide

Capital Swiss officials are becoming concerned that Zurich may become the assisted suicide capital of the world. The company “Dignitas,” which exists to help people commit suicide, is based in Zurich and has seen its membership soar from 750 to over 1600 in the past year alone. Though the company cannot profit from assisted suicide under law, it does charge a member ship fee to belong and accepts donations. Assisted suicide is allowed under Swiss law if the drugs are self-administered and the decision to die is made rationally. There is no provision in Swiss law prohibiting physicians from giving overdoses to foreigners. Critics charge that the Swiss are allowing “suicide tourism” and that doctors cannot adequately judge a patient’s true mental state from a single in-patient visit and a review of the medical records. The company has helped 110 people die to date. Swiss officials are considering limiting the ability of foreigners to commit suicide in the country, but those rules are not expect ed to be implemented until sometime in 2003. Some fear a rush in “suicide tourism” prior to the rules taking effect.