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April 16, 1990


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 "foreign" environment.

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 is different.

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 experimental tissue.

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.


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