WHEN IT comes to advances in science, the British public customarily takes its seat at the back of the class, where its inattention is least likely to be spotted. Having spent the lesson whispering about football or fashion, it risks only having its ignorance exposed if it is asked its opinion. The double biology lesson about stem-cell research has been a long one, beginning with the 1990 Human Fertilisation Act and stretching to the months of wrangling over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The lesson is nearing its end, helped by countless explanations and newspaper graphics, though hindered by desultory reporting of the parliamentary debates.
But now comes a voice from the back of the class: “One might say that in our country we are about to have a public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion — without many people being aware of what is going on. It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity of human life than this particular Bill.” The speaker, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, referred to the provisions in the Bill as “grotesque”, “monstrous”, and “deathly”. Cue images of animal-human monsters. He was backed up, rather surprisingly, by the Bishop of Durham, who had the opportunity to debate the Bill when it passed through the House of Lords. Referring to “dark tyrannies”, he urged his listeners to “make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology”.
At issue is the understanding of what happens during the first stages of life. It is easy to argue that life begins at fertilisation, for so it does; but the profligacy of the natural process means that any concept of sacredness is imposed rather than observed. The Bill confirms the 1990 ban on experimentation after 14 days, when it begins to be possible to see which cells will form the embryo and which the placenta or umbilical cord. The moral authorities of former centuries were unable to know this. This puts a responsibility on contemporary ethicists and moral theologians to reassess their moral teaching in the light of new findings. The Church’s views have been welcomed hitherto, but scientists and legislators are less likely to seek guidance from those who appear to have little grasp of the science, or sympathy with its therapeutic intentions.
Rather than resort to caricature, church leaders would do better to focus on aspects worthy of their concern. How is the 14-day limit to be enforced? If embryos can be screened for genetic defects, can this be done on behalf of a sibling? Theologians have been rightly dismissive of the ignorant forays that scientists have made into theology. They must beware of giving scientists the opportunity to return the compliment.
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