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Reproduction: an issue of human rights

In conjunction with the BIOS Centre
Speakers: Dr Stephen Minger; Dr Debora Spar
Chair: Professor George Gaskell
Tuesday 3 October 2006


For as long as we have inhabited the planet, birth has been the key to our survival, but beyond the effort at conception we have had next to no control over it - how to make it happen; the kind of child it produces; the things that can be done with a fertilised egg outside the womb. Now all this is changing. Technological advance is opening up novel ways of relating to reproduction, giving us new choices, new opportunities but also new ethical dilemmas. Well-known concerns relate to the use of IVF treatment to obtain a child for a single or gay parent, and more recently some aspirant parents have sought the technology that will secure them a child of a particular gender, or improve the genetic health of their child. There is also the emerging world of 'reproductive tourism' with people travelling for treatment they cannot get in their home country, and the difficult issue of 'eggspoitation' with women who are being coerced into selling their eggs. The advent of human embryonic stem cell science, and the spectre of human cloning, have added yet further dimensions to the question of how best to achieve socially responsible, and ethically accountable, regulation in the rapidly changing field of reproductive rights and wrongs.

Where does the idea of human rights stand in relation to these matters? Do we have a right to a child, or a child of a particular quality? Do future humans have a right to be born 'warts and all' or is their perfection something that a parent has a right to achieve on its behalf? Does the right to family life entitle a child to a loving environment without necessarily a male in the family group? Is cloning a breach of human rights?

Dr Stephen Minger is the Director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory and a Senior Lecturer in the new Wolfson Centre for Age Related Diseases at King's College London. Over the last 15 years, his research group has worked with a wide range of somatic stem cell populations, as well as mouse and human embryonic stem (ES) cells. In 2002, together with Dr Susan Pickering and Professor Peter Braude, Dr Minger was awarded one of the first two licenses granted by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for the derivation of human ES cells. His group subsequently generated the first human embryonic stem cell line in the UK and was one of the first groups to deposit this into the UK Stem Cell Bank. They have gone on to generate four new human ES cell lines, including one that encodes the most common genetic mutation resulting in Cystic Fibrosis. In addition to the derivation of human ES cell lines, the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory is focused on the generation of a number of therapeutically relevant human somatic stem cell populations from embryonic stem cells. Dr Minger has established highly productive collaborations with a number of specialist groups in many areas of clinical interest throughout the UK, and is one of the co-organisers of the London Regenerative Medicine Network, a grass-roots, research-led organisation designed to stimulate clinical translation of cell- and gene-based therapies within London. He is also the Senior Editor of Regenerative Medicine, a new journal launched in Jan 2006 by Future Medicines.

Debora L Spar is the Spangler Family Professor at Harvard Business School, where she works on issues of business-government relations and the political environment of international commerce. Dr Spar's current research focuses on issues of foreign trade and investment, examining how firms compete in foreign markets and how government policies shape and constrain their options. She is particularly interested in information-based industries such as media, entertainment, and biotechnology. Her current research examines the politics of reproductive science, analysing how the "baby business" has developed and how commerce, politics and technology are likely to interact in and affect this market. Other projects examine the political drivers of foreign direct investment and the impact of investment on human rights and labour standards.

At Harvard, Dr Spar is Senior Associate Dean, Director of Research and teaches courses on the politics of international business, comparative capitalism, and economic development. She is also Chair of Making Markets Work, an executive education program devoted to public and private sector leaders in Africa, and teaches and consults for a number of multinational corporations, government agencies, and non-governmental organisations.

Dr Spar is the author of numerous publications in academic and public policy journals. Her latest book, The Baby Business was published by Harvard Business School Press in January 2006. She is also author of Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet and The Cooperative Edge: The Internal Politics of International Cartels, and co-author with Raymond Vernon of Beyond Globalism: Remaking American Foreign Economic Policy.