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By Archbishop Mario Conti
Arcdiocese of Glasglow
When Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby was born, one of the first assurances of prayers for the new-born child came from the relatively unknown Patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani, who, within months, was elected Pope as John Paul I -- a pontificate lasting 33 days.
His words raised eyebrows.
Was it appropriate for such a message to come from a senior Catholic churchman, given the Church's firm opposition to the very processes which had led to the baby's birth?
On reflection, it is clear that Patriarch Luciani was perfectly right to offer his prayers for the baby's well-being. Irrespective of the processes, the baby was, and is, a human being.
This episode comes to mind when it is announced that "baby Eve" has been born -- reputedly the world's first cloned baby. For a cloned baby, like any newborn infant, is due the fullness of respect and care which is the right of every human being.
In recent days the veracity of this claim has been questioned. I join innumerable scientists, ethicists and politicians round the world in hoping that this claim of successful cloning is no more than a publicity stunt by an obscure sect. The attempted cloning of a human being is frought with danger both in its processes and in its results with regard to the physical and psychological well-being of the cloned person.
We would not be addressing this difficult question, however, were it not for the fact that we have already crossed several moral boundaries before finally coming to an instinctive halt at the brink of reproductive cloning.
One moral problem has succeeded another.
The first step on this nightmarish journey was the British Government's acceptance of in vitro fertilisation, namely the production of human beings in a petri dish. It is often forgotten that for every child brought to birth using these techniques, several embryos will have died, been frozen or destroyed in the process.
An even more ominous step was taken when the same Government allowed for destructive experimentation on human embryos.
The next step was the removal of stem cells from what have been appallingly referred to as "superfluous embryos" destroying them in the process. Such procedures in turn paved the way for so-called "therapeutic cloning" -- the creation of human embryos for a maximum period of 14 days during which time their stem cells are removed, killing them.
Just last week, the Sunday Herald revealed the prospect of a trade in human embryos. It revealed how "The Medical Research Council which is setting up the UK Stem Cell Bank to store cells for spare body parts, has written to selected IVF clinics offering them money to pay for a nurse co-ordinator who would encourage patients to donate their embryos for stem-cell research." This opening up of a market in human life strikes one as simply a logical progression ever further into this bio-ethical house of horrors.
Well may Dr. Ian Gibson, Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee be concerned. I admire his courage in standing up to the Medical Research Council, questioning their proposal.
However I would hope that his concern would extend beyond a trade in human embryos to the very notion of providing human embryos for medical research. All the steps outlined above have been taken on the ground of a purely utilitarian ethic. When followers of such an ethic find that a particular course of action is useful they describe it as good. The motivation is generally sentiment. By that I mean not causing pain to anyone and bringing happiness to others.
Of course sentiment is purely subjective, and the judgement about bringing happiness to others is notoriously relative. Such arguments undoubtedly serve commercial purposes but do not provide a foundation for sound legislation which has the benefit of the wider community in view. I will be told -- and I have been told by medical researchers who know better -- that an embryo at this stage is only a blob of cells. I will be told that I would be inhibiting research which was necessary for the curing of a number of genetic diseases.
There are other sources, however, of stem cells, for example placenta and umbilical cord, and indeed adult bone marrow. Only last week scientists at the University of Rostock in Germany reported using stem cell injections to aid the recovery of heart attack victims. The stem cells were obtained from the patients' own bone marrow.
Of course nobody likes to be told that they are doing wrong, particularly when they are so well motivated, but doing wrong they are. In all these cases scientists are subjecting human beings, however young, to destructive procedures: making one embryo, a human being in an as yet undeveloped state, the means to another human being's end -- the potential of one subjected to the potential of another.
Of course the argument from sentiment -- if that is to be the basis of one's moral philosophy -- is unassailable. The fourteen-day embryo feels no pain, while the developed embryo, before and after birth can and does. But it was sentiment -- or rather the lack of it -- which enabled the Nazi regime to decide on and carry through the horrific policy of liquidation of the Jewish people. And many other horrors throughout history, even recent history, have been based on purely utilitarian arguments, or on a philosophy that has, for a whole range of motives subjugated one group of human beings to the benefit of another.
The only sound principle we have known for equitable law and the defence of human life is that no individual human being is expendable. Or to put it in a more traditional form: no innocent may be killed.
And this is still, surprisingly, despite all these aberrations, the basis of our law.
When that principle, even in its most extenuated form, is ignored we do not progress, but rather regress as a civilised people.
I take no pleasure in noting that those who can help us most can sometimes harm us not the least.