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Why Christians should back the Bill

06 February 2008

The new embryology Bill enshrines vital moral distinctions, argues Richard Harries

Should it be allowed? Dr Miodrag Stojkovic of the Centre for Life at Newcastle University, conducting stem-cell research PA

Should it be allowed? Dr Miodrag Stojkovic of the Centre for Life at Newcastle University, conducting stem-cell research PA

This week, the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill finished its passage in the Lords, and now it passes to the Commons (News, 25 January). From some of the headlines, it might be thought that Christians are opposed to it, or at least unenthusiastic. I believe it deserves our wholehearted support.

Louise Brown is now about 30. After this first child conceived using in vitro fertilisation was born, the Government set up a commission, chaired by Mary, now Baroness, Warnock, to regulate this whole area. Its recommendation was that the early embryo should be accorded a degree of respect, and given a legal protection that reflects this.

It is this fundamental principle that underlies all the law on the subject. In short, the early embryo does not have the rights of an adult or baby. On the other hand, as a potential child, it is not just tissue.

The 1990 legislation that enshrined this position has proved remarkably robust. It was supplemented by the 2001-02 regulations, which allow research using embryos not just for the purposes of improving fertility, but for serious diseases as well. These pieces of legislation have enabled the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) to regulate all the fertility clinics in the country, both private and NHS, as well as all research involving embryos.

Nevertheless, since then, there have been some significant scientific advances, and changes in social mores — for example, the advent of civil partnerships. The Act needed to be updated, and, after a great deal of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, it began its passage through Parliament in the Lords, where it has been vigorously debated over many days.

The Roman Catholic position, which is shared by many Evangelicals and some Anglicans, is that “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” The implications of this view must be fully faced.

It means ruling out IVF altogether; for this treatment involves taking a number of eggs from the woman, fertilising them, and implanting in the womb the two that are most likely to flourish. Those that are not frozen for further use (either because the first treatment failed, or to produce siblings) are destroyed.

The implication of the RC view is very serious for the large number of women who now need fertility treatment. People are marrying later and having children later, when chances of conceiving are less, and there is an increase in conditions such as obesity, which again diminish the chances of fertility.

There is another implication of the Roman Catholic position. It rules out using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This involves taking some cells from the dividing embryo and testing them for certain inherited diseases. It means that a healthy rather than diseased embryo can be implanted in the womb.

It enables children to be born without crippling, death-dealing diseases such as cystic fibrosis. Do we really want pregnant mothers either to seek an abortion later, or to bear a child who is subject to great suffering when they have a real choice to bring into being a healthy one?

Like those who produced the excellent reports for the Church of England’s old Board for Social Responsibility, I take a gradualist approach towards the moral status of the early embryo and developing foetus. One reason is that this gradualist approach is reflected in the main tradition of the Western Church from the fourth to the 19th centuries.

Abortion has always been regarded as a serious sin, but, for 1500 years, the Church made a distinction in the penalties, depending on whether it was an early or late abortion. It was only in 1869 that Pope Pius rejected that distinction, and brought about the present position of the Roman Catholic Church.

A second consideration is what happens at about 14 days after fertilisation. At this point, a dark line can be identified in the developing embryo, which is the beginning of the nervous system. After this point, we have a single human individual. Before this, we have a tiny bundle of multiplying cells, the majority of which go to form the placenta and umbilical cord, and which may result in two or more embryos being implanted in the womb.

This seems a significant moral, as well as scientific, boundary. It is this primitive streak that is enshrined in law in relation to the 14-day limit on what can be done to the embryo.

Another important factor for me is that we now know that more than two-thirds of fertilised eggs are lost anyway in natural conceptions. Nature is prodigal. God has given us brains and skills to interact with natural processes in order to hone what nature does to enhance human health and well-being.

There are, of course, other controversial aspects of the new legislation: the need for supportive parenting rather than the need for a father; hybrids and the technique of PGD with tissue-typing to produce a child whose tissue could be used to provide cells for a sick sibling (News, 18 January).

Space precludes detailed discussion here, but I believe that any initial hesitation, when thought through, can be overcome. But the Bishops’ bench raised a fair point. Would not the so-called “saviour siblings” create an instrumental approach to human life generally, which would be thoroughly dangerous? Would it not encourage us to use others as a means to an end?

Before 14 days, the early embryo is not, in my view, a human individual, and therefore what we do at this stage is not instrumentalising human beings. But perhaps we are on a slippery slope, so that we are influenced to treat the later foetus in an instrumental way?

If we fear a slippery slope, then we need something firm to hang on to. We have this in the form of the 14-day rule. All embryos that have been used in research have to be destroyed before that. And we have the firm legal rule that no embryo that has been so used can be implanted in a woman’s womb.

So, while we must continue to watch developments carefully, and science is advancing all the time, I believe we have enough in place to ensure that we do not cross important moral boundaries.

Fertility treatment is vital for a growing number of women, and research on early embryos is necessary to try to bring help to people suffering from a range of serious diseases. I believe the legislation to regulate this should be supported.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, is a member of the HFEA, and chairs its Ethics and Law Advisory Group.

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