Medicine in the moral maze
Britain became the first country to legalise “three-parent babies” this year, despite the opposition of some Christians. A breakthrough against disease, or a breakdown in modern values? John Bryant weighs up the issues
Is medical science taking us on a downward path that will lead to the devaluing of human life? The debate that hit headlines earlier this year about mitochondrial donation – so-called “three-parent IVF” – is a typical example of this concern. Mitochondrial donation is the offspring of a powerful marriage between in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and human genetics. So, in order to understand the current debate, we need to go back to 1978 and the discussions about the birth of the first IVF baby.
The Catholic Church was, and still is, opposed to IVF on the grounds that human life is sacred from the “moment of conception” – a view that is shared by some evangelicals. This ascribes to the early human embryo the same moral status as an existing person; therefore, the creation of spare embryos in IVF is problematic. After all, there can be no such thing as a “spare” person.
Justifying this view on biblical grounds is difficult, however: In biblical times, nothing was known about the early (pre-implantation) embryo. “Conception” meant becoming pregnant, a process that involved the man’s “seed taking root” in the woman’s womb. Some have invoked Psalm 139 as a basis for their stance on the human embryo, but the Psalm clearly refers to pregnancy and not to the pre-implantation embryo – even assuming we can take a prayer of praise to God as a basis for doctrine or practice. It has also been argued that we should treat early embryos as persons because there is a biological continuity between the one-cell embryo and the born baby, notwithstanding the high loss rate and the possibility of splitting to form twins.
These views contrast strongly with the statement in the Warnock Report, a statement that was effectively enshrined in UK law in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: “The early embryo is not yet a person but nevertheless should not be regarded as just a ball of cells. Thus the embryo of the human species should be afforded some protection in law.” Some regarded this as ethical fence-sitting, trying to please both sides. Indeed, several Christian MPs voted against the bill on the ground that the Warnock Report devalued the moral status of the human embryo….
This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Reform.