Saturday, March 22, 2008

Embryo research

Religious protests are hardly surprising:

One of Britain's leading Catholics has criticised Gordon Brown over his Government's "monstrous" plans for embryo research and compared them to the creation of Frankenstein's monster.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien will use his Easter Sunday sermon to censure the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which will allow scientists to create part-human, part-animal embryos for use in stem cell experiments.
Cranmer comments:
the Cardinal’s concern (and that of many Christians, Jews and Muslims) is more to do with the spiritual status of the chimera – that is, its ensoulment, and the sanctity of its existence. If humans are made ‘in the image of God’, in whose image is something that is part human part animal? And does such a creation have ‘human rights’, ‘animal rights’, both or none?
This is not an exclusively ‘anti-Catholic’ Bill; it is a fundamentally anti-Christian one, and some might say an anti-religious one, for it is secular to the core.
Central to the beliefs of most religions is the idea of human singularity; the idea that biological humans are a sort of temporary container for a soul and that no other form of life is; that the soul is the important thing and that the rest of creation, including other animals, is separate, qualitatively different and placed here to provide us with refreshment while we sit an extended examination that will determine whether we spend eternity in bliss or suffering the agonies of torture.

If this viewpoint were wholly correct in all its implications, it shouldn't be possible to combine genetic elements from humans with elements taken from non-human animals. In other words, the very fact that this sort of research is possible at all is an affront to, and a refutation of, this core principle of religious belief.

The fact that this research is possible has been accommodated within the mainstream religious armistice with evolution, whereby some evolution is accepted - how much varies, often it's just enough to account for observed adaptations by and within individual species. This allows acceptance of biological mechanisms of inheritance. At a stretch, it can allow the idea that human genetic material is compatible with things that derive from other species - in this case structures rather than genes: the research in question involves removing the genetic material from an animal embryo and replacing it with its human equivalent.

But claims to prime movement (creation) and to human singularity have not been surrendered by any religious leaders.

With cosmology unlikely, in its present form, to have anything to say about what (if anything) might have preceded or initiated the Big Bang, or indeed whether either is meaningful, there is a truce over, or at least an absence of things to say about, the prime movement.

The unique and soul-filled nature of humanity is another matter. Abortion, embryo research and genetic research more generally will continue to be active battlefields for decades to come. The problem has always been simple: religions are, not so much wrong, as incorrect. There's sensible, uncontroversial stuff in religious teaching (don't kill, for example), but we weren't created by God. There isn't a God. As more is discovered about the world, and more ways to manipulate it are worked out, this conflict will continue.

Cranmer was clever, and correct, to bring animal rights and human rights into the mix. But embryo research simply throws new light on an existing ethical problem, it doesn't create the problem.

Cardinal O'Brien used the F word - Frankenstein. There's a perspective on this story, not necessarily one its author would have shared, that sees The Creature as the victim of superstition and hatred. This reaction against embryo research, and genetic engineering generally, is more the product of superstition, loathing and fear. That it is superstitious is either self-evident or offensive, depending on your perspective. There is fear, because in this process of biological discovery lies the end of intellectual respectability for theist religious thought. And there is loathing; I have no doubt the Cardinal, and the blogger known as Cranmer, both feel a genuine and compassionate disgust at the thought of human hybrids - and it is compassionate. For no very good reason, there's an instinctive idea in most of us that any such creature would be deformed, suffering and grotesque.

Of course, at the moment nobody is suggesting doing anything more than letting some cells reproduce for a few days. But sometime, somewhere, someone will try to bring a human hybrid to term. It's an unnerving thought. I'm not sure anyone has yet successfully imagined what it will be like in a world in which genetic engineering is routine and reasonably complete as a technology.

But for all our trepidations, I suspect people living in such a world will look back on our era much as we look back at the Dark Ages, as a period when life was nasty, brutal and short. Ancient footage of people with cancers or Parkinson's, accounts of the minds that were lost to Altzheimer's, will fill them with horror and despair.

And I doubt there will be much reverence felt for the clerics who tried to stop experiments like those covered by this forthcoming Bill.


Wyrdtimes said...

Hocus pocus aside, I think MPs should get a free vote on everything.

Anonymous said...

The scientists involved can be pretty confidently assumed to be consciously lying about the extent to which, or perhaps more accurately the speed with which and the certainty with which, their work will lead to cures. The abracadbra merchants are presumably just trying to put fancy dress on a feeling of revulsion. Where can one turn to for a disinterested but accurate account of the matter? Dunno. The people who know enough to be accurate are usually interested parties, so unless you happen to know one of them and believe him to be a Presbyterian Pillar of Rectitude, you're rather stuck. I'd decide on prejudice: I incline to be against banning things.