- Q1: Why whip people’s consciences?
There is a political dimension, because politics is where laws come from. I like the idea of free votes, because it requires people to make out cases that persuade others rather than coerce them using the party machine. This is all the more true of a conscience question — Using whips looks like you know you really can't persuade them, and maybe you can’t.
- Q2: Is Every sperm sacred?
It’s a simple modern idea that conception defines the logical top of the slippery slope. It’s one easy and obvious place to draw lines. Christian tradition, however, has taken a rather more “farmer Giles” view of these things. Augustine talked about embryo inanimatus, not yet endowed with a soul. Medieval Christians dated ensouled life from “Quickening.” Trying not be be too gross, Lucy and I once lost an early pregnancy and turned up to our surgery with what our doctor tactfully referred to as “matter of conception,” wrapped in a hanky. Was it within the purpose of God, whatever its precise status? Yes. Did I want to rush out and give it a Christian funeral? No. Ten weeks later I would have, and it would have mattered very much to me. Call me illogical. I’m with Saint Augustine on this one. A Blastocyst has the potential to become a baby. The vast majority don’t make it, within the purpose of God, including that one.
- Q3: What about Species bending?
Well, producing Chimeras sounds much more frightening than breeding mules. We’ve been doing some degree of this since the Bronze age. But what about altering what it means to be human or animal? Genesis teaches a sacred ordering of nature. God asked the man to name what was already there — to order and steward all pragmatic possibilities. We have many more possibilities before us than Adam. How do we fulfil the charge and avoid the curse that was laid on us all in him? If I have a pig's valve put in my heart, does that make me a hybrid? technically, yes. Practically, even within the Jewish/ Christian view that you are a body rather than have a body, such hybrids obviously retain their full humanity. Cytoplasmic embryos are emphatically not the same thing as true (mixed gamete) hybrids. We already use transgenic embryos for medical purposes, but on the “One step at a time, and learn from it” principle I would oppose any proposal to put animal genes into human embryos. As to the matter under discussion, if we should be reluctant to monkey about with this stuff (and I feel we should be) use of Cytoplasmic embryos actually reduces the requirement for human embryos. There are thus pro-life arguments for allowing it. Radically different research options are coming up in the outside lanes, too, but we need to take every proposal very much on its own merits.
- Q4: We can do all sorts of things — does that make them right?
No. Life is God-given. The Warnock report gave limited special protection to human embryos, and this is surely right, to honour the concept of humanity. I don’t buy the idea that something becomes right merely because we can do it. Lots of things we can do are emphatically wrong, and this lies at the heart of the classic nuclear dilemma. Far better if nukes had never been invented, but you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Saint Paul pointed out that Instrumentalism is not enough — something isn’t right merely because it can be done. If I have to err, I would do so on the conservative side of this argument. It’s easy to mock slippery slope arguments, but one thing does lead to another. We should keep in place strong legislative protection against, for example, the implantation of research lab embryos in a woman, or culture beyond the current 14 day limit. What we actually need far more is a map for the country around us as research proceeds — a major agreed framework within which to understand the implications. I can’t see we’ve yet quite got that, though Warnock was a start. Our lack of this worries me more than than anything proposed in the current bill, and I think serious ethics committee work needs to be done at a more theoretical level.
- Q5: What is our Moral duty here?
Cherishing life is a plain moral duty, but part of cherishing life is to relieve suffering and help people, and this often involves radical intervention in natural processes. Dr Frankenstein and Nazi mad science are very different from what is being proposed and why. God gave us brains to use, and there is a clear moral and social objective in enhancing our capacity to understand and promote healing. Of course there is the principle of Double effect (no good should rest on a bad); but you can only know Cytoplasmic embryo research is inherently bad if you take the “every sperm is sacred” line, which, with Saint Augustine, I don’t.
Wednesday, 26 March 2008
Embryo Wars — five critical questions
What did I do in the great embryo war? — stay out of it is one possible answer, but if twentieth century science was driven by physics (leading to us going nuclear) the twenty-first is set fair to be driven by life sciences. Towards what? Hard to say, but it’s a vital question. I am very much an ordinary Joe, Historian not life scientist, but people have asked me for a view, so here are some preliminary critical questions (in ascending order of importance):