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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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The British government has an agency called the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority that regulates infertility treatments of all kinds. It has the power to determine whether or not a British citizen may receive treatments to help produce a child. As someone who has suffered through infertility, I can say that the thought that we would have had to petition a government body to be able to go through the years of trying to conceive is utterly repellent.

The story of a couple’s rejection is telling. They had a son with a rare form of anemia and they wanted to use medical advances to find an embryo that matched their son exactly. They pleaded with the HFEA and were rejected on moral grounds. The reasoning, given in the linked article, was that in choosing one embryo to develop over another, they were condemning the remaining embryos to an unspeakable, prolonged, and agonizing death. They actually just called it death—I was being sarcastic with my description since we’re talking about a collection of cells not yet implanted in a uterus.

So they did what most people do in countries with socialized medicine when faced with insurmountable obstacles for medical treatments: they went to America. The mother went to Chicago and came back to the United Kingdom with twins. They were literally their older brother’s only hope.

Two years later, the brother is now doing well and appears to have been cured of the rare disease that doctors thought would have killed him by 30. He no longer has to have twice-weekly blood transfusions.

What about the so-called “designer baby” that was conceived to help him? Is he a horrible mutant with some internal stuff missing? Did he have to undergo painful surgeries when he was less than a week old? No, the lifesaving stem cells that were used to cure his older brother were harvested from his umbilical cord. For those of you unfamiliar with anatomy and the wonders of birth, the umbilical cord is cut from the placenta and is discarded normally.

The outrage and government fiat was done in the name of protecting cells that are essentially the flotsam and jetsam of delivery. The parents wanted more kids and, most importantly, they didn’t want the kids they already had to die. The child who was at one time attached to this umbilical cord is loved and treated like any other member of the family. He’s not some byproduct of a medical procedure: he’s a kid who will get to live his whole life knowing his big brother.

Speaking of big brothers, can you imagine some bureaucrat telling you that you couldn’t do the exact same thing to save your child? “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll just have to enjoy your son’s remaining years.” Thankfully, there is still relative freedom in America but what if the fundamentalists in our midst have their way and shut down embryonic research over here. Where would we go from here?

[UPDATE: Ronald Bailey has an essay on the wider implications of such things.]