In a column today in the Daily Telegraph, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor asked if "the conscience of the nation at ease with itself," even if the politicians have already cast their votes.
"Far from settling the issues until the next bill comes along, this week's extraordinary debates have in fact woken us all up to the reality of what is being done in our name," he said. "Many people are left deeply uneasy and perplexed, profoundly worried about the direction we are now taking.
In a series of decisions Monday and Tuesday, Parliament voted in favor of human-animal hybrids, and approved the creation of "savior siblings." They also decided that fathers are not a necessary prerequisite for seeking in vitro fertilization, and that the upper limit on the abortion law should stay at 24 weeks of gestation.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said the debates are not over: "A vote alone cannot and should not close the discussion. Underlying it are crucial questions. What is it to be a human being? What conditions do we need for our flourishing? In what sort of society can we put our faith and know that we are cherished and valued and above all enabled to grow in our search for what is right and true?"
In this context, the cardinal suggested two things: a national bioethics commission, and a common effort to reduce the number of abortions in Britain.
"First, it is increasingly clear that we need a statutory National Bioethics Commission," he proposed. "A high-level national bioethics commission with the best expertise from different disciplines might not always be unanimous in its view. But it could greatly serve the common good simply through continuing dialogue and exploration.
"As a society we urgently need to create the capacity for continuing ethical reflection. Ethics needs to keep pace with the science, and the public must not be left behind. Many other countries have such a commission and the U.K. is badly served without one."
Second, the cardinal suggested, "the vote to maintain the current status quo on abortion is not the end of the question."
Abortion is legal in Britain through the 24th week of pregnancy. Parliament was asked to consider lowering that limit, even just by two weeks, due to a growing number of cases showing that infants at 22 weeks of gestation are viable outside the womb.
"The idea of 'viability,' prominent in the debate, is a concept dependent on the availability of resources and technology; not one that is able to found a moral distinction between a life that is worth our respect and protection, and one that is not," Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor explained. "Life in the womb needs all our resources and protection and makes that claim from the moment of conception.
"For everyone involved, abortion is often a painful and shattering decision and it can only be a source of profound distress. That is why I believe we must all, whatever our beliefs, work together to find a better solution."
There are about 200,000 abortions a year in Britain, something the cardinal said people on all sides of the debate agree is "far too many."
"Even without a change in the law, the number of abortions could fall dramatically if more people worked together to foster a new understanding and approach to relationships, responsibility and mutual support," the prelate contended.
Science vs. religion?
The archbishop of Westminster also clarified that the debate of recent weeks is not about science versus religion.
"The truth is that 'science' is never in itself on one side or the other," he affirmed. "Of course we all need to understand what scientific advances tell us about the physical and biological worlds, about the material out of which human lives are made, and the breathtaking beauty and complexity of human development from the embryo.
"But science remains a human activity. It takes place in moral space not a moral vacuum. What we are dealing with are profound ethical judgments which are informed, but not determined, by the insights of science. Our views will be shaped not only by scientific facts but also by our basic understanding of what a human life is, and also our philosophy of life -- which may or may not be informed by a religious belief. Science cannot replace ethics."
The cardinal affirmed that there is no conflict between faith and reason, and called for reasoned debate to test the positions of both believers and nonbelievers.
"[People of faith] should not be excluded or marginalized simply because they come from a religious perspective," he affirmed, "nor should they be given special privilege in democratic debate."
"Reason and faith go hand in hand, and, for me, faith brings an insight into the truth which helps reason," the cardinal stated.
He concluded: "This week's debate does not mark the end of the discussion but in fact, paradoxically, opens up the possibility of one that is much deeper. I hope this can become a conversation for everyone marked by a new openness and mutual respect in which we have much to learn from each other. This is because it is a common search about nothing less than the ultimate truth of who we are and what we are called to become."