St Bride's: Sermons

The HFE Bill: a battle science won & religion lost

Every so often something happens in Society which is a kind of defining moment, a watershed moment, even if we don't recognise it at the time. Such a moment, I believe, occurred last month when Parliament debated the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill. You could almost describe it as the battle for the human soul - and it was a battle which science won and religion lost. For now, at any rate. The abortion limit stays at 24 weeks. Children conceived by IVF will no longer legally "need" a father. Saviour siblings and animal-human 'cybrids' have been allowed. Modernisers have defeated traditionalists.

Whether or not you agree with the outcome of the debate, the signal that this last month sends to the nation is that the voice of science is to be trusted and followed, but that the faith communities are now a marginalised, minority voice who only speak for themselves and not for the rest of society. The churches have historically been looked to as a significant part of the conscience of society, a voice of considered wisdom, but last month that voice was largely ignored, and that in spite of the fact that there does seem to be considerable public unease about late abortion, and embryo experimentation.

Even more worrying is the underlying shift within society on these and other crucial issues, from what is a religious viewpoint of seeing a human life as a God-given gift, as sacred and unique, ours to receive and nurture not manipulate and exploit, towards a view that sees human beings as means not ends in themselves, a view that leads us directly to 'saviour siblings', children conceived in order that their tissue may be harvested subsequently to help treat or cure an elder brother or sister's life-threatening condition. As George Pitcher put in his Telegraph column last month:-

My concern is that Parliament has taken insufficient regard of the chasm between the production of hybrid embryos, which will be kept alive for no more than 14 days, and the production of fully formed human beings for the purpose of harvesting their tissue.

At one level, there is the profound effect on their self-worth that this new generation of little donors will have to bear. To put it vulgarly, if Leo grows up to resent that his mother conceived him because she was too embarrassed to carry her "equipment" with her to Balmoral, how much more embarrassing might it be to be brought into the world to be a piece of equipment.

Beyond that, there are philosophical principles here that go to the heart of our civilisation - and to the heart of anyone who would fall to their knees in front of that small boy to tell him that he would not be harvested for his sibling. The doctrine of Imago Dei (The Church Fathers) emerged from the Greek patriarchs. They didn't have to worry about embryology, but they did establish that humans were made in the image of God, which spoke of superiority to the rest of creation, the quality of an immortal soul and the gift of reason. Above all, the idea was identified with free will; that every life is sacred and unique, a principle that has shone down the ages. It follows that such lives have their own purpose.

We are, for the first time, enshrining in law the principle that babies can be born for someone else's purpose.

We don't have to accept the existence of God in this equation. We just need to question whether science should do something just because it can. And, while we celebrate the wonders that medical science can perform in advancing the human lot, we should be conscious of what we're losing too.

Well, last month the scientists won, and it may take some years before we realise the significant shift that has taken place in society's attitudes and values as a result.

What signal, for instance, does the section of the act dealing with the 'need for a father' in fertility treatment, in which that need has been abolished - what signal does that send to the society at large: that fathers are marginal to the wellbeing of the family? that growing children simply don't need a male role-model in order to flourish? This not only goes against the Christian belief that a married couple, husband and wife, are the God-ordained context in which to bring up children, but also against the well-documented empirical evidence of the detrimental impact on society of families without fathers.

In all this, inherited certainties, institutions, ideals and religious beliefs are being challenged, changed and marginalised, and we as the Christian Churches of this land are being challenged as never before to think very carefully about what we do believe about the purpose of human life under God; and if necessary to speak out against the prevailing tide and the secular culture. And if we find that daunting then we should remember that Jesus did exactly the same.

In the Gospel reading on Sunday 25th May, he is not afraid to challenge accepted norms and laws. Six times in Chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel he says "You have heard it said... but I say to you". Each time he takes the law of the land and turns it on its head. He was revising the Law and challenging society's norms. He asks us too when necessary to challenge society's more misguided values or attitudes: not just for effect but because our actions can begin to change the world into one more in keeping with God's Kingdom.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, responding to debate, said:-

The gift which the Christian faith brings to all these discussions is a vision of humanity in which every human life has infinite value and dignity because it is made in the image and likeness of God. Whether or not we share this vision of faith, cherishing life and protecting the vulnerable, especially those who are unseen or unheard, is a central value of every society that wants to flourish.

There is a battle for the human soul, and the Christian viewpoint will not be heard, indeed will become increasingly marginalised, unless you and I stand up and make our views known. AMEN.

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