Human in a test tube – Pierre Schembri-Wismayer

Mark Sant is an old friend and a top specialist in his field. I have no doubt that the feelings he has for couples suffering the pain of infertility and his wishes to help them are genuine (May 2).

Sant sees people in this stage and time of life and, as a medical doctor, wishes to care for them in this stage. I on the other hand am a cell biologist and study human cells on a day-to-day basis so I understand cells, even when the cells are forming the very beginning of a human life.

This was attested to by 23 scientists including professors in molecular biology, genetics and cell biology and published in this newspaper. Standard embryology texts like Langman’s embryology, which both I myself as well as Sant studied from, also state this clearly.

None of these scientists (including myself) could be considered the ultra- Catholic right. I for one, barely made any noise, for example, about the campaign for divorce, or the choice for gay marriage. I am glad LGBTIQ people are able to declare their love for each other in the same way I can for my better half.

I am sure many of the people hailing from Sant’s own political or medical background similarly disagree with him, independent of their political or religious beliefs.

In fact, the Malta Paediatric Association (child specialist doctors) came out with a statement defending life from conception. They too, maybe, seeing the child in their medical practice, are much more understanding of the development of life in its earlier stages.

However, the record must be set straight. No one can stop our country from eventually deciding to freeze embryos, if that is what our politicians believe, even though I wish to live in a country which respects life in all its beauty and fragility, something already being lost in the way elderly people are sometimes treated by our health services.

What I do not however accept, is misquoting the truth or being economical with it to manipulate public opinion.

For example, websites and papers like the one which I think Sant used to find the opinions of other faiths regarding the embryo, do not only indicate the opinions he quoted, i.e. that of Muslims and Jews. It also indicates that Hindus, like Catholics, believe that personhood starts with conception.

 Protestant Christians generally do not have a consensus opinion with some using the 14-day cut-off, while others agree with protecting the embryo from conception. Even the opinion of Muslims varies.

Together with Buddhists, many of them, believe in fact that personhood can start from implantation (i.e. less than 10 days, not 40 or 120 after conception). Despite these various opinions (correctly called opinions, as Sant states), some scholars of various religions agree with research into embryos, making their stances quite flexible. 

All of this can occur because of the philosophical concept of personhood. Some philosophers base their thinking on blatantly incorrect science and scientific interpretation, including our own late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott. These relate personhood to individuality, with the argument that since up to 14 days post-fertilisation, twins can still develop, therefore the embryo is possibly not a single individual and thus not a person.

The suggested idea is that two individuals could be hidden within the single embryo.

This scientific view shows a serious lack of knowledge of stem cell function. Our earliest stage of development – the human being who was me (or you, or Sant), is capable of self-healing, a feature which is found in our case only in our earliest stages.

On the other hand, other animals, retain this capability as adults. If you split a starfish in half, each part can heal, to produce two starfish, the original individual and a new one. To compare with humans, it is as if, once a human’s arm is cut off, the original human would heal by regrowing its arm, and the arm, would regrow the rest of the body, making a new second human being.

It is never the case that two individuals were there hidden inside those of us who become twins. All embryos are one life, but if for some reason they are “broken” in two, they can heal to form two different embryos, even if genetically identical.

This is the biological basis for disproving the false philosophical premise propagated by many including our own PSI. Despite his skill in philosophy, ideas based on false science are just that – false.

However, I do not feel we need to descend into these details of philosophical thought, or necessarily explain such complex science.

When our loved ones die, they (despite the fact that they have no potential to be human beings at all) are treated by all cultures, including our own, with respect. Apart from legal medical services, no one freezes corpses. It is more the kind of story from a CSI episode.

If we afford the dead bodies of our loved ones respect, when they have no life within, nor will they ever, why does our beautiful country wish to afford much less respect to the embryos which will become our future children?

After all, as Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards, the Cambridge University physiologist who co-developed the (IVF) method, said (regarding Louise Brown, the first baby to be born using IVF): “Last time I saw the baby it was just eight cells. It was beautiful then and still beautiful now.”

Pierre Schembri-Wismayer is an associate professor, Department of Anatomy, University Faculty of Medicine and Surgery.


Share Your Thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *