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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill - Cardinal calls for a National bio-ethics commission
posted on 21 January 2008
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

The following article, written by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor appeared in The Times on Monday 21st January 2008.

'In the 10 years since Dolly the sheep briefly walked the earth the pace of bio-medical research has massively accelerated, with extraordinary prospects for serving the good of humanity.

Yet science is running ever further ahead of societys ability to reflect and assess the wisdom of the latest technological advance.  We cannot stop the tide of advancing knowledge, and nor should we want to.  But we can and must find better ways of deciding how that knowledge is used, or risk the profound social consequences of what we have unwittingly allowed.

The UK is already a leader in bio-ethical research.  For all our sakes, it now urgently needs to become is a world leader in the quality of sustained and continuous ethical reflection that must go with it. Today the House of Lords will have the chance to help achieve this when it debates whether to set up a National Bio-ethics Commission.

Many other countries already have such a statutory body, bringing together a broad spectrum of experts with a clear mandate and an independent advisory role. Only by establishing such an authoritative and independent body can we ensure that serious ethical scrutiny is a precondition of research and of the development of biomedical technologies. The area of embryo research, for example, is fraught with deeply contested and profound ethical questions which go to the heart of what it means to be human.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill now in the House of Lords is seeking to come to terms with many of these profound questions. But the Bill cannot second-guess the future and for that reason it has to include some flexibility for change and development.

The scope given to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority and the Health Secretary to make decisions will not necessarily ensure that essential ethical reflection and discussion take place. The HFEA is neither a directly elected body nor is its membership required to include a full range of ethical views. It is not primarily an ethics body; it is a regulator.

While technology provides new opportunities, it requires wisdom to know how and if we should apply them. That we can do something does not mean we should do it. A national bio-ethics commission would include a variety of perspectives and would be a forum for serious sustained reflection.

We need not only a knowledge-based economy, but also a knowledge-based democracy.  I hope the House of Lords seizes this  opportunity not just to frame laws for today but to plan for the future by establishing this new framework for ethical consideration. A national bioethics commission is long overdue.  We need one for the sake of the common good.'


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