St Bride's: Sermons

When do you think human life begins?

When do you think human life begins? To what extent should we interfere with nature in relation to human reproduction? When do the ends justify the means in scientific research and the prevention and cure of disease?

I think we would all agree that these are profoundly important questions that affect us all, and that have a moral and spiritual dimension to them. They are all questions which are raised by the proposals in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which comes before Parliament next month. But how much do we know about these issues? You may have read about the controversy over whether MPs should have a free vote on certain clauses in the legislation, and you may have heard about the protests from the Roman Catholic Church over Easter who oppose all experimentation on embryos. But you could be forgiven for giving up at that point - the issues seem too complex for non-scientists to understand. Many people would say we have to trust the scientists and the church shouldn't presume to dictate to the rest of now, largely secularised, society.

I beg to differ. These issues are too important to be left to 'the experts' and we all have a duty to try to understand the basic issues and to influence the debate.

The HFE Bill (2008) is primarily an overhaul and updating of the HFE Act (1990). The fruit of the Warnock Report (1984), this Act legalised assisted reproductive techniques, embryo experimentation and surrogacy.

So far the HFE Bill (2008) looks set to legalise:

  1. The creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.

  2. Saviour siblings for 'serious' rather than 'life-threatening' conditions.

  3. Sex selection of embryos for 'social' rather than medical reasons, such as 'family balancing'.

  4. The deletion of 'the need for a father' in considering the 'welfare of the child' prior to IVF treatment.

  5. Advertising and fees for surrogates to encourage surrogacy.

The most emotive part of the legislation concerns the creation of what are called 'admixed embryos' which are made by placing the nucleus from a human cell into an animal egg: these are then grown for a few days in the laboratory and the embryonic stem cells are then extracted for use in research into genetic diseases like Parkinsons and diabetes, and to test new treatments and new drugs. Scientists and patient groups generally support this work: the Roman Catholic Church and some Anglican Bishops have strongly opposed it, using phrases like 'dismantling the fundamentals of human dignity', 'the creation of Frankenstein's monster', and 'playing games with humanity'.

In fact the official Church of England response gave a cautious acceptance to the proposals of the bill, but criticised the House of Commons select Committee for disregarding ethics in favour of seeking scientific knowledge by all available means, and urged the members of the Church of England to engage with the scientific community to ensure that the ethical/moral dimension of these issues is not forgotten.

This is very important, and for the Christian the key question concerns the status of the embryo - is an embryo in the first two weeks of existence simply a piece of human tissue, a collection of cells, a bit like an appendix, or is it a potential human being deserving the same protection and respect accorded to a fully formed foetus? Broadly speaking Christians take two different views:-

  1. The embryo from day one is human, unique and created by God, a potential person to be treated with respect and reverence. It has the same moral status as a child. This is the position taken by the Roman Catholic Church - so contraception is wrong, abortion is wrong in all circumstances, IVF/AID is suspect, embryo research is forbidden.
  2. The embryo in its very early stages cannot be called human, personhood is developmental, something that emerges as the foetus grows and becomes a complex individual being. So in those very early days it is possible and allowable to experiment with the embryo but only for serious purposes in combating disease and infertility. This is the position taken by the Warnock report in 1984 and the 1990 and 2008 legislation, and tentatively supported by the Church of England.

As we reflect on these issues we, as Christians, will want to affirm:

  1. that we are stewards and co-creators with God
  2. that human life at every stage is created by God and is to be nurtured, supported and respected.
  3. that we should proceed with caution ensuring that all necessary safeguards are in place when legislation is passed.
  4. that new discoveries and technology are part of the way in which we respond to God's plan to bring healing to a broken world. They are to be embraced but not uncritically.

In a debate about these issues the Bishop of Saint Albans said:

"There is a world of difference between understanding the details of embryo research and knowing, imaginatively, what its implications might be. I do not necessarily need more information: what I need and what the public needs, is more wisdom. So I am making a plea for wisdom to be given as much room as the excitement and pace of scientific discovery."

Amen to that.

We are faced by new information, new experience, new possibilities: medical developments are to be celebrated and encouraged but they must also be critically assessed to ensure they are compatible with the dignity and vocation of human life as created by God. That ongoing debate is all our Christian responsibility.

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