How the Church exploits secular uncertainty

Catholic opposition to creating hybrid embryos is a pain. But doubt about experimentation and 'playing god' is rife in secular circles, too.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech

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Be it Dolly the cloned sheep or the desperately contrived spectre of ‘designer babies’, if one area of science can be relied upon to stoke man-plays-god controversy, it’s genetics. The proposed UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill has proven no exception.

Meant as an update to the 1990 Act of the same name, the new Bill promises to permit screening for genetic or chromosomal abnormalities and allow single mothers or lesbian couples to conceive without a relationship to a biological father. The proposal that caught the angst-ready eye of most, however, pertains to embryos. Or more precisely, hybrid embryos, the admixture of human and animal components (in fact, the Bill refers to them as ‘human admixed embryos’).

To be yet more specific, this involves the use of the empty outer shell of animal eggs in which to implant human DNA. The subsequent embryo (kept for no more than 14 days) can then be harvested for stem cells – that is, immature cells that can become types of tissue. Such experimentation, by allowing for an understanding of the development of a multitude of cellular types, opens up the possibility of treatments for previously incurable, degenerative conditions of the heart, liver, kidneys, cerebral tissue, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, leukemia, diabetes and cirrhosis. In the future, it might even be possible to create specific organs for specific donors.

But rather than celebrating the possibilities such experimentation affords, some have seen fit to condemn it as an affront to ‘the sanctity and dignity of human life’ (1). Never short of a moral heckle, the Catholic Church has predictably been to the fore, with the Vatican recently including the destruction of human embryos on its list of mortal sins (2). As science makes possible, so the Church prohibits. Following suit, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and Scotland’s leading Catholic, used his Easter Sunday homily to attack the HFE bill. Calling the creation of embryos for the purpose of providing tissue or organs a ‘hideous practice’, he concluded that ‘we are about to have a public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion’ (3).

O’Brien’s equivalent south of the border, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, echoed the disquiet: ‘There are Catholics who feel very strongly about this matter and I am glad they do.’ (4) Indeed, those Murphy-O’Connor alludes to include British government ministers, Des Browne (defence secretary), Ruth Kelly (transport secretary), and Paul Murphy (Welsh secretary). As British prime minister Gordon Brown had insisted that all Labour MPs vote in favour of the bill or resign, this would have presented a considerable obstacle, if not to the Bill’s progression, then certainly to their political careers. Until yesterday that is, when Brown, as is his wont, bowed to pressure, stating ‘exercising your conscience will mean for Labour Party members a free vote’ (5). A victory for religious intransigence, perhaps?

Certainly that’s how some critics have viewed it. In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee criticised the privileging of religious conscience, or as she put it, their ‘obscurantist dogma’ over political, indeed, public interests (6). The Times‘ David Aaronovitch was equally irked by the moral posturing of the devout, discerning a ‘growing shrillness and unpleasantness – yes, an unscrupulousness – about the way that some of the top faithful increasingly choose to conduct their arguments.’ This, he added, ‘needs to be combated because, for all their talk of conscience, what [the religious hierarchy] really seem to want is to tell the rest of us how to live’ (7).

No one enjoys being lectured to by the Church, as Galileo would testify. But there’s something over-excited about this willingness to pounce on the outrage of certain prominent Church members. It concedes not just the moral high ground, but the moral ground as a whole. Where the Catholic church plays upon a notion of what it is to be human, of both being of an ethically higher order than animals, and the sanctity of human life, even at the embryonic stage, those supporting the use of hybrid embryos in scientific research need to make a similarly positive case, indeed, moral case for scientific research. If you like, meet fire (and brimstone) with fire. As any good Catholic mother would tell you, being content to just bash the bishop is a sign of moral weakness.

This is not to imply that scientists themselves have been slow in coming forward. Professor Colin Blakemore wrote an open letter to The Times in response to the religious outcry: ‘The Bill is not about creating monsters or mocking the sanctity of human life. Indeed, it will reduce the number of human eggs and embryos used in the production of stem cells for research.’ (8) Professor Chris Shaw was just as exasperated: ‘People think we are generating some sort of hybrid animal. This is just cells, just for science. No animal is ever going to be created.’ But although these are reasonable, not to mention factually correct, responses, there is an element of defensiveness to them. It is more of a case of downplaying public fears, and dispelling misconceptions, than winning the public round.

Unfortunately, as Brown’s initial reluctance to risk the Bill’s defeat shows, there is little evidence that anyone who should be making the case from the policy side is willing to. This is nothing new. From the two decades-long anxiety over stem cell research to the insistence in the 1990 Act on the official assessment of parents hoping to undergo IVF treatment, scientific advance is more often than not rendered as a threat to the social fabric. Upon this issue both Church and state concur.

It is for this reason that scientific experimentation is subjected to strict regulation in the public’s name. As the proliferation of scientific regulatory bodies indicates, from the Central Research Office for Ethics Committees to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), what such a bodies do is create the impression that there is something dangerous to be regulated, that Prometheus really is stealing fire from the Gods, or at least his modern-day equivalent, Baron Frankenstein. What is markedly absent from the debate so far is a positive portrayal of man’s mastery of nature, regulated or not. That is the real problem, not the Catholic Church’s manufactured ire.

Indeed, until the government and secular commentators can muster the morals to defend science, to defend experimentation, risk-taking, choice and, yes, ‘playing god’ (after all, who else is going to do it?), Church leaders will continue to feed on and exploit today’s palpable discomfort with scientific progress. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the transformation of the debate over the new Bill into a fantasy clash between old-world Catholics and brave progressives is a cover for the fact that doubt about scientific exploration is rife today, from the government down.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

John Gillott accused religious and government officials of stemming scientific endeavour. Stuart Derbyshire called on US scientists to develop more backbone. Ellie Lee argued that personal reproductive choices should not be a matter for legal regulation. Jennie Bristow welcomed the Science and Technology Committee’s call for putting more trust in parents, doctors and scientists. Or read more at spiked issue Genetics.

(1) Cardinal O’Brien’s Sermon, BBC News, 21 March 2008

(2) Catholic pressure on fertility bill, BBC news, 11 March 2008

(3) Cardinal O’Brien’s Sermon, BBC News, 21 March 2008

(4) Brown ready for compromise on embryo bill to ensure controversial ferlitiy law survives, Daily Mail, 23 March 2008

(5) Brown compromise over embryo bill, BBC News, 25 March 2008

(6) Religion doesn’t rule in this clash of moral universes, Guardian, 25 March 2008

(7) Wicked untruths from the Church, The Times, 25 March 2008

(8) Moral maze where science and faith collide, The Times, 24 March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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