"I don't know why those doctors are making a fuss" a (Catholic) medical professor said to me. The "fuss" was about the recent use of bits of the brains of babies — not born, but no longer in their mothers' wombs — to treat patients with Parkinson's disease. "They're dead, so what's the objection? What did you say? 'Accomplices'? Nonsense, the surgeons didn't have anything to do with the abortions".
I said I hadn't called them accomplices "before the fact" but "after the fact". "Nonsense", he said again: "anyway, how do you know that they were using products from procured and not spontaneous abortions?" But
when I asked whether he thought the surgeons in question had taken pains to be sure the "foetuses" had been the products of ordinary miscarriages, he granted that he didn't suppose so.
Nor, if the procedure is successful in treating the victims of Parkinson's disease, can we dream that the surgeons won't use the brains obtained from abortions performed in hospitals. Then they, like many others already, will be accomplices "after the fact". A biochemist of my acquaintance, who wanted to find out something in the course of her experimental work, learned that to find that thing out you had to
use the liver of a foetus of a certain gestational age. "If knowledge is only to be got that way", she said, "it had better not be got".
There are those who say: "Since there are all these abortions, what a waste not to use the products!" Well, if that's a reasonable thought, we can take a tip from Dean Swift's Modest Proposal. The modest proposal was to get the Irish poor to breed babies for the tables of the rich. Nowadays too there are lots of hungry people in the world; so let us give them foetuses to eat. These could no doubt be turned into a nutritious unrepellent paste.
The BMA's "Interim Guidelines on the Use of Foetal Tissue in Transplantation Therapy" shows that those important doctors, like many of my own colleagues (philosphers) are bitten by modern superstition about the brain. The brain, together with the central nervous system, says a well known philosopher, is the "core person". Others: if we were to swap brains, you'd be me and I'd be you. The BMA say: "Nervous tissue may only be used as isolated neurones or tissue fragments for transplantation. Other foetal organs may be used as either complete or partial organs for transplantation." taught only in Catholic colleges. Now it is a burgeoning subject. Here (in this country) the place where it is worked on in a Catholic way is the Linacre Centre. The Linacre Centre thus does very much needed work.
Professor Elizabeth Anscombe was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1970 to 1986. Previously she taught philosophy at Oxford University. She was a member of the Linacre Centre Working Party (1978-1981) which produced the Report "Euthanasia and Clinical Practice" (1982).
Photocredit: Carlos Reyes
Professor G E M Anscombe