8 September 2015
Parrillo v Italy (application no. 46470/11) Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights,  ECHR 755 (27 August 2015) – read judgment
The Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court has ruled that the Italian ban on the donation of embryos obtained by IVF procedures to scientific research was within Italy’s margin of appreciation and therefore not in breach of the applicant’s right of private life and autonomy, even though she was willing to give the embryos to scientific research, since she no longer wanted to proceed with pregnancy after her partner was killed covering the war in Iraq. By donating these cryopreserved embryos to research she would, she argued, make an important contribution to research into medical therapies and cures.
A strong dissent to the majority judgment is worth pointing up at the outset. The Hungarian judge, Andras Sajó, found Italy’s general ban quite out of order. Not only did it disregard the applicant’s right to self-determination with respect to an important private decision, it did so in an absolute and unforeseeable manner.
The law contains no transitional rules which would have enabled the proper authority to take into consideration the specific situation of the applicant, whose embryos obtained from the IVF treatment were placed in cryopreservation in 2002 and whose husband passed away in 2003, three months before the law entered into force.
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22 April 2013
International Stem Cell Corporation v Comptroller General of Patents 17 April 2013  EWHC 807 (Ch) – read judgment
The EU bans the patenting of human embryos for commercial purposes. This ban is implemented in national law via the 1977 Patents Act. But what precisely is a “human embryo” for the purposes of the Biotech Directive? Or, put another way, must the process involving embryonic stem cells be capable of developing into a human being, before the ban can bite?
Stem cells – not just the embryonic variety – are vital to current medical research. This is because they have the capacity to differentiate into almost any type of adult cell, thus opening the door to a wide variety of new therapies and other medical applications. In theory, stem cells can be grown in the lab and developed into healthy adult cells to correct cardiovascular disorders , diabetes and a range of degenerative brain diseases and spinal cord injuries. One of the first triumphs of stem cell therapy is the ability of retinal pigment epithelium cells, cultured from embryonic stem cells (ESCs), to reverse the effects of age related macular degeneration. Other potential applications include the treatment of burns, strokes, eye disease, spinal cord injuries and certain forms of cancer.
But the concept of ESCs is fraught with emotion and controversy and scientists have worked, with varying degrees of success, at finding stem cells elsewhere, either in adult tissue, or by creating stem cells from non-viable embryos.
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22 October 2012
The recognition of a right to life, liberty, and the autonomy of the individual and the mandate of government to secure these rights is being threatened by an increasingly illiberal notion of “human dignity”, says evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker.
His 2008 broadside in The New Republic took to task a now defunct body, the US President’s Council on Bioethics whose publication Human Dignity and Bioethics is shot through with disquiet about advances in biotechnology. It could not be more different from the enlightened report issued earlier this year by the Council’s successor calling on the current administration not to stifle biomedical research with over-restrictive regulation (see my post). Does the contrast between the present advisory body’s recommendations and the report put before the previous President signal a fundamental change in the way we approach progress in this field? Probably not. Only two weeks ago, Sir John Gurdon (the Nobel physiologist whom schoolteachers had written off as a scientist) bemoaned the regulatory restrictions that make important therapies too costly to pursue. Pinker’s dismay at the “scientific illiteracy” of society rings true today:
Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy. Brave New World, a work of fiction, is treated as inerrant prophesy. Cloning is confused with resurrecting the dead or mass-producing babies. Longevity becomes “immortality,” improvement becomes “perfection,” the screening for disease genes becomes “designer babies” or even “reshaping the species.” The reality is that biomedical research is a Sisyphean struggle to eke small increments in health from a staggeringly complex, entropy-beset human body. It is not, and probably never will be, a runaway train.
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