Before it slips from the news, take a look at a scandal in India that illustrates one of the biggest bioethical challenges we face in a globalised world. Last weekend, Nepal handed over to Indian authorities an Indian man arrested on suspicion of running a huge illegal kidney transplant racket. It seems this ring duped poor Indians into selling kidneys that could be transplanted into rich Indians and foreigners at many times the fee that the unwitting donors received. At least five foreigners — two U.S. and three Greek citizens — were found in a luxury guesthouse run by the racket in a city of high-tech companies just outside New Delhi.
Science and religion are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, especially by the “new atheists“, but the real picture has always been more complex. The latest breakthrough in stem cell research shows how quickly opposing sides can become allies. On Nov. 20, two research teams announced they had transformed ordinary skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos in the process. That meant that scientists could solve an ethical dilemma they had effectively created when they began using human embryos to produce stem cells.
We noted here just the other day the all-but-absent ethical angle in the Daily Telegraph story about the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep and a new technique for creating stem cells without embryos. Now, we have two reports from Maggie Fox, our Health and Science Editor in Washington, that address the scientific and ethical issues.
The Daily Telegraph had a fascinating scoop over the weekend — Professor Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, has abandoned the therapeutic cloning method for a new way to create stem cells without an embryo. In classic Fleet Street style, the London daily announced in the second paragraph that the decision “will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment.” It took another 16 paras to get to other constituencies for this story, who are mentioned in passing in the line that “there is an intense search for alternatives because of pressure from the pro-life lobby, the opposition of President George W Bush and ever present concerns about cloning babies.”
Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries. France found that out this weekend when the daily Libération revealed that a French couple that had used a surrogate mother in the United States had won a long legal battle to be recognised as the parents of the twin girls who resulted from the arrangement. Surrogacy is illegal in France. French officials refused to register the twins as the couple’s daughters, leaving them in a legal limbo for seven years. But an appeals court finally granted their wish, arguing it was in the children’s best interests to recognise the U.S. birth certificates that listed Dominique and Sylvie (their surname was not published) as the parents.
Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case“? Eluana Englaro has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for the past 15 years and her father is trying to get legal permission to remove her feeding tube. Italy’s highest appeals court recently sent the case back to a lower court in Milan that had refused to let him do so. The local media have already dubbed Eluana “Italy’s Terry Schiavo” and the retrial (when it happens) looks set to spark off another major bioethics debate there.