April 16, 1990
CARDINAL HUME ON EMBRYO EXPERIMENTATION
Of life and death
Nothing demonstrates more dramatically the collapse of
moral consensus in Britain today than the long and often bitter debate over
issues of love and life. Marriage and family life, the whole field of human
relationships, are matters of fundamental importance for any society. Equally
significant are the profoundly moral arguments now raging over the origins of
life, the status of the embryo and the freedom to experiment on, and then
destroy, human life in its first 14 days.
Moral choices do not depend on personal preference and private decision but
on right reason and, I would add, divine order. The vital decisions we reach on
human fertilization and embryology will later affect how we regard the status of
each individual, his or her human rights, the treatment of people who are
handicapped, the fate of the senile and the terminally ill.
How we treat human life in any of its manifestations and at any of its stages
is of the highest moral significance. Once we are convinced that we have the
right to determine when life becomes human and ceases to be so, to decide
whether that life is worth living and when it can and should be subordinated to
any other purpose however benevolent, then we stand in danger of creating a
society that is potentially self-destructive
Now this, I fully appreciate, is not how the debate on embryo experimentation
to be pursued soon in the House of Commons is popularly perceived. The vote in
the House of Lords was not taken on such basic premises. For the noble lords as
for the general public the argument has so far been concerned mainly with the
immediate and short-term. They are much influenced too by the compassionate
objectives of those who demand the freedom to experiment. But once the decision
is taken in Parliament, the momentum of science and technology will take over.
It will be immensely difficult later to introduce the necessary checks and
balances or reverse what will eventually be seen, I am convinced, as legislation
which is fundamentally flawed.
The present controversy abounds in myths and partial truths. There are three
ideas now firmly lodged in people's minds which, if true, would argue strongly
for the legalization of experiments on human embryos. But they are false.
The first is the notion that freedom to experiment on human embryos is
necessary to help infertile couples. That is an admirable and entirely
worthwhile objective. There is, however, a snag. A recent article and
correspondence in the Lancet on "Benefits of In Vitro Fertilization" (IVF)
raised important questions about the costs of IVF, its benefits and the ratio of
cost to benefit. Critics of IVF point to its experimental status, its
uncertainty, its as yet unappraised risk factors and the divergent rates of
success. There are, experts assure us, other methods of treatment and the
reasonable prospect of equal or better alternatives, provided these are not
starved of financial, human and material resources because of the IVF program.
One example is the technique of egg transfer to the womb during the natural
cycle preceded or followed by intercourse. One value of such a technique is that
it builds upon the increasing recognition of the complexity of the fertilization
process. It is dependent on much more than the conjunction of egg and sperm in
vitro, achieved in what can only be described as a "mechanistic" manner and in a
Given the alleged low success rate of IVF after a comparatively long period
of research and testing, it is surely reasonable and just as compassionate to
challenge the near monopoly that IVF currently enjoys as a cure for infertility
and to favor other new approaches. This would, consequently, reduce the pressure
to find a shortcut through IVF problems by means of embryo experimentation.
The second myth is that embryo experimentation is necessary in the fight
against inherited genetic diseases. Much is made of the image of compassionate
doctors struggling to find ways to eliminate the misery of handicap. It seems a
clear case of intelligent compassion against coldhearted prejudice. The reality
Embryo research as far as genetic diseases are concerned is, it now seems
clear, directed not at cure but prevention. By prevention is meant the
systematic elimination of live human embryos found to have defects. It is, of
course, true that there is natural wastage when fertilized eggs fail to develop.
Nature's prodigality, however, provides no moral justification for a human
decision to destroy.
No one would wish to understate the burden and distress of the parents of
handicapped children, but it is essential to realize that strategies of
elimination are themselves only partially effective and selectively
compassionate. There is, incidentally, scant compassion shown to the newest
members of the human community, the embryos themselves. There must, as a matter
of the highest priority, be research into improving the quality of life for
people with handicap. Their subsequent achievements are so often the sign
of the human potential waiting to be released.
For the longer term there is the prospect of gene therapy. Even the
pro-experimentation lobby concedes that destructive embryo research does not
contribute to that particular development.
The third, and, probably, the most mistaken and dangerous notion is that the
medical and scientific establishment is not violating the sanctity of human life
but taking welcome advantage of the new-found possibility of researching into
fertilized cells before they attain human status.
In fact, contemporary scientific knowledge both of the genetic code which
determines human development and of the process of fertilization itself provides
us with solid grounds for recognizing when life begins. A unique biological
event occurs with the conjunction of egg and sperm. That gives rise to a new
distinct organism with its own dynamic organizational capacity. That life is
human; as the product of human fertilization it can be none other. All
subsequent events, including the development of the primitive streak by 14 days,
are but stages of varying importance in human development. No matter what
scientific disputes there may be about genetic individuality and developmental
individuality, legislation should give life the benefit of the doubt and protect
the human organism from the time of fertilization.
It obscures the issues to debate whether this human life can, from day one,
be regarded as a person and whether it is already endowed with an immortal soul.
These are strictly philosophical and theological questions which science and
legislation are in no position to determine. The status of the human embryo and
its dignity and rights under the law should be determined by the human life it
undoubtedly has from the beginning. This life, irrespective of the precise
moment of ensoulment, has the capacity under favorable circumstances for full
development to human maturity.
It is recognition of this continuous human development which compels us to
oppose on principle any proposal to treat this human life in the same way as
This is an issue of life and death, of fundamental human dignity and of the
basic and unconditional respect we are bound to have for each other. Until
recently our society has consistently recognized these values. Without them it
will in future suffer incalculable damage.
CARDINAL BASIL HUME