posted on 20 September 2001
Diocese of Westminster
The debate we are having this evening, as everything else these last few days, is set in a radically changed world. The terrible events in America with the massive loss of innocent life has shaken the foundations of civilised societies. It is much too soon to tell what the long term consequences will be, but it seems clear that they will be global and far reaching. We pray for those leaders on whose shoulders the decisions rest. Our topic tonight, though not in the same register of urgency or immediacy, also has a long-term importance for our world. For the advent of human cloning opens up in this century a vista of possibilities human kind has never been able to contemplate before. And at the heart of this lies a question our society has to look at again: 'What is a human embryo?'
I had an uncle who was a priest and who often spoke when a large family celebration took place. He always began with the text from Isaiah: Remember the rock out of which you were hewn. Before I say anything this evening, I think I ought to tell you something of my background. I do not mean my family background so much as the tradition in which I was reared and in which I have lived these nearly 70 years. I have inherited, in terms of my faith and morality, the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Before we can come to discuss the topic of the status of the human embryo, we should also look at the way one approaches decisions regarding ethical questions. For a Christian like myself, and I suppose for many of you, it is important to try to begin with a proper understanding about morality. A distorted view would be that morality concerns laws, duties and obligations fulfilled and satisfied; laws and obligations are imposed arbitrarily by God, a God whose chief role is law-enforcement and meting out justice to those who offend. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Jesus Christ was asked, What is the greatest of the commandments? He said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There could be no more explicit statement about the foundation of Christian morality.
A great saint and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote about morality. He said: It's not about what is my duty or about my obligations but in what does happiness consist for human beings, built as we are with minds that seek to understand, hearts that long to love and be loved and bodies that express all this outwardly. According to him, therefore, all is rooted in a most basic and universal desire shared by everyone - the desire for happiness and fulfilment. Out of this arises a Christian view of what is really fulfilling for our human nature. And not only for you and me individually, but for the human race as a whole. The tradition of the church offers the fruit of sustained reflection over 2000 years on what this fulfilment requires. As human understanding about science and our origins has developed over the centuries, the church has sought to reflect and deepen her understanding of what is revealed in Christ, centring on the unique calling of each of us, and the need to recognise the supreme value of every human life. That is the tradition I inherit, and it is the background of our debate this evening. What makes for human flourishing? What makes for the good in human nature and in society? How do the decisions we make with regard to human life and conduct express this?
Someone asked me recently why on earth did I wish to enter such a debate as I am doing this evening! One of the reasons is as follows: I was particularly worried and deeply disappointed by the decision last January of the House of Lords to allow human embryonic cloning. That decision, following that by the House of Commons, is disturbing in many ways. The House of Lords had the opportunity to postpone their decision in favour of establishing a Select Committee to assist in doing the ethical analysis warranted by such a momentous step. I am glad to say that my companion on the platform this evening, Lady Warnock, was one of the voices that called for such a Committee. What happened? The Lords rushed in where angels feared to tread. Even worse, the policy proposed by the House of Lords requires that any cloned human embryo would have to be destroyed 14 days after the procedure. The destruction hardly seems a fitting end for a new human life that began at the will of human somatic cell nuclear manipulators.
It seems to me that we are singularly ill-equipped to enter this minefield or to take such a decision which has immense consequences for humankind. It should be noted that no other country has passed such legislation, and many were appalled by the decision of the British government. Simply, I want to make four points.
1. My first point is this: As a Christian, I believe that human life has a transcendent - even cosmic - value which comes from our being created in the image and likeness of God. It is also true to say that many humanists believe just as strongly, without reference to God, that human life from conception has a supreme value in itself. The foundation of civilized human society in a human democracy is the inalienable dignity of every human life. There is, however, a contemporary view that what matters is whether the life is wanted or not, by the individual or society, rather than whether it has intrinsic value or not. There are arguments about spare embryos and unwanted pregnancies. I repeat, the dignity of every human being, from conception to the grave, is at the heart of a Christian's view of life. The protection of the weak and vulnerable is, furthermore, a fundamental requirement of any civilised state.
2. My second point is that at the heart of the debate we are having this evening, namely the Cloning debate, or the status of the human embryo is 'when does human life begin?' If I ask myself 'when did I begin?' It was in the act of love of my parents. This brought about the beginning of an individual human history. That first fertilised cell was a new human life, in the sense that it was neither the life of my father or my mother. It had a distinct identity continuous with my own. The same is true for everyone here tonight. An embryo is a new human life. It is the first stage in the life of a particular individual. It is an organism and not an accidental collection of cells. It has its own internal structure which is in the process of constant development.
One of the problems with the moral status of the early human embryo is its physical appearance. It is very small and quite unlike the later foetus in its shape and structure. It does not evoke the same emotional reaction as the sight of a fully developed foetus in the womb, or a new born baby. But from a moral point of view do these factors matter? Does size? Does appearance? He or she, the human embryo, is a cell. But we are all collections of cells. It looks different, but so does a caterpillar from a butterfly, and yet is the same living being. The embryo and the human adult are the same organism at different stages of growth and development. It is argued that the human embryo cannot have interests because it is not conscious. But an embryo is, I suppose, like an adult in a coma which ends predictably after several months. The unconscious patient could not take an interest but would have interests and could be benefited or harmed in many ways. But should moral significance be attached to implantation in the womb, or the development of the primitive streak after 14 or 15 days, or to 'viability' - the point beyond which the embryo can survive outside the womb, or to birth?
A majority of Lady Warnock's 1984 committee on embryo research opted for allowing destructive experimentation on embryos up to 14 days. But their report also stated that 'once t