Last week saw the birth of Spain's first so-called 'saviour sibling' - a term used to describe babies conceived following embryotesting to ensure their umbilical cord blood will provide tissue-matched stem cells for an existing sick child. It is hoped that stem cells from baby 'Janvier's' cord blood will provide a cure for his 6-year-old brother, Andres, who has 'beta-thalassaemia' - a genetics blood condition requiring monthly blood transfusions to avoid life-threatening anaemia.
The technique leading to Janvier's birth involved creating embryos by IVF and then testing them to ensure that they would result in a baby both unaffected by beta-thalassaemia and who would also be a suitable tissue match for brother Andres. One of the embryos which was tested was implanted back into the womb to continue developing. The remaining embryos, which were either affected by beta-thalassaemia, not a tissue match, or excess to needs, were then either frozen or discarded.
The only cure for beta-thalassaemia is a stem-cell transplant from a tissue matched donor. It is hoped that stem-cells from Janvier's umbilical cord blood, taken painlessly at birth, can be used to repopulate his brother's bone marrow, thus allowing him to produce normal red-blood cells and curing his beta-thalassaemia.
However, the birth of baby Janvier has provoked a flurry of protest from the Roman Catholic Church and Pro-Life groups, who believe that any process which involves destroying embryos equates to taking a human life. According to The Times newspaper, a document published by the Spanish Bishops' Conference, the ruling body of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, read: 'You cannot kill one human being to save another.'
Also quoted in The Times, Manuel Cruz, director of the Life Foundation, objected to the prospect of picking and choosing embryos on any basis, deeming it 'degrading for human beings'.
In 2006, a change in the law permitting stem-cell research in Spain provoked outcry from the conservative church. Nevertheless, the field remains controversial in Spain - Andalusia, the region where Janvier was born, is the first to allow embryo screening as a public health right.