Page 9, 11th December 1998

11th December 1998
Page 9
Page 9, 11th December 1998 — Sidling towards a new harvest of death

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Sidling towards a new harvest of death

THE RECOMMENDATION this week — in a joint report by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) — that the cloning of human embryos for the purposes of research should be allowed, demonstrates with stunning clarity the confused thinking and moral bankruptcy of much that passes for ethical discourse in the British medical establishment today.

The intellectual confusion of the report should surprise no one. Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the HGAC, was already on record as saying that his Commission wanted "to stop the wild and irresponsible notion of cloning whole human beings but allow procedures that may in four to five years time lead to the curing of diseases".

In other words, cloning as such is perfectly permissible so long as the embryos produced are prevented from doing what embryos do, but not if they are allowed to develop into visibly identifiable human beings.

It is important that we understand the meaning of words. An embryo is not a meaningless blob of jelly. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines an embryo as "a human offspring in the first eight weeks from conception" To say that cloning is permissible, but only if the logic of natural processes is then frustrated by human intervention, is the ethics of the madhouse. It is to say that it is perfectly moral to generate human life by what Cardinal Hume rightly terms this "strange and unusual" process but only if we then kill it.

Catholics should make their views known on this matter, particularly to the bodies concerned, and to their own public representatives. Their case is strong, and it has been well and concisely expressed by the Cardinal.

"Every human embryo", he said this week, "is a new human life with the potential to develop into an adult human being. From the moment an embryo is created, we are dealing with a human subject that should always be treated with reverence and respect. It would be morally abhorrent for new human lives to be created simply for harvesting human tissue."

Sir Colin has one eye on public opinion. "It is quite clear", he said this week, "that human reproductive cloning is unacceptable to a substantial majority of the population". For that reason, it seems, the joint report is opposed to it: "a total ban", he continues, "is the obvious and straightforward way of recognising this". But what if public opinion were to change? What if the majority were less "substantial"? Could we trust the HGAC to pronounce against it then?

In fact, public opinion is by no means wholly in favour of experimentation on human embryos either. A recent survey for the Wellcome Trust found that many people expressed reservations about cloning to create tissue and organs for medical treatment, because it involves the destruction of human embryos. Why are not Sir Cohn Campbell and Dr Ruth Deach, chairman of the HFEA, concerned to respond to public opinion here, too?

The reason, presumably is that this is a rubicon that has already been crossed. The human embryo is considered fair game. For the HGAC and the HFEA to recognise the embryo's human status now would be to place their own existence in doubt, and the first priority for all quangos is survival in office. The HFEA was deliberately set up (following the recommendation of the Warnock Commission) on the definitive assumption that it is impossible to know when human life begins, and that this is a question which falls outside its remit. Nobody who disagreed with this view was allowed on to the Commission. If public doubts on the destruction of human embryos were now belatedly to be listened to, the logical outcome would be the winding up of the HGAC and the HFEA (at least as they are at present constituted). Part of that process would involve at least what Cardinal Hume called for this week the amendment of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, so that it no longer permits destructive experimentation on embryos up to 14 days old.

That is a stage we have not yet reached. Public opinion is disquieted and ambivalent on such questions, but it has not yet reached the moral certainty that is needed to make reform a practical possibility. But already there are signs that change is on the way. It is surely a sign of enormous importance that a third of junior doctors now refuse to perform abortions. This is due, not to some kind of recrudescence of primitive moralism but to the potency of reality when it can no longer be denied. It is the steady development of scientific knowledge about the humanity of the unborn child that has led to this change. As Nuala Scarisbrick recently wrote in these pages. junior doctors "have to recognise the humanity of the unborn child in a way that their seniors did not."

That includes their seniors among the worthies who serve on the HGAC and the HFEA. They may be older, but they are not wiser. It would be good for all of us if they were gone, into the oblivion they have merited.

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