Sunday, 5 April 2009

The New Archbishop of Westminster

We have a new Archbishop of Westminster! Archbishop Vincent Nichols will lead the Church in England and Wales, succeeding Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor.

I like him. He speaks truth gently but firmly and doesn't quibble about saying things that ruffle feathers. I saw him on Channel 4 news and the interviewer quite aggressively asked him some questions and went straight for the gut with the AIDS/Pope/Gays/Condoms issues that the media love to discuss when it comes to the Church. He answered the questions well, with humility and generosity and actually spoke in defence of the Holy Father, something we've not been hearing from our Bishops in a while.

The following is the text sent by the Archbishop to the Birmingham Post on the ghastly HFE Bill:

"On Tuesday night the House of Common refused to change the 24 week limit on abortions. Not even the vivid pictures of a human being stretching, yawning and smiling in the womb convinced the majority of a need for change. So the deliberate killing and dismembering of innocent human beings will continue. Not surprisingly the vast majority of NHS doctors refuse to carry out such abortions. They are left to the profit making private sector. A brutal reality in a brutal world.

The Government’s argument in favour of these abortions was based on scientific evidence. Its logic is clear: if a baby is not viable outside the womb, it may be killed. Nothing else matters.

Earlier, on Monday evening, Parliament extended its 1990 decision that a human life, in its first fourteen days, in limited circumstances such as IVF, could be created, used and destroyed for the benefit of others. Now it will be legal for human life in its earliest stages to be subjected to a wide range of selective testing, experimentation and intermixing with animal DNA, eggs and sperm.

I must confess to dismay at these developments. Some of them – such as ‘saviour siblings’ – are known to be of therapeutic value. Others - such as admixed embryos and true hybrid – are to be permitted purely on the basis of possible future benefits. I found to vote on true hybrids particularly distasteful, as it could result in genuine 50-50 hybrid mixes of human life with animal life.

These decisions take this country further than most down the road of minimal regard for human life. This is not something of which we can be proud. Indeed future generations may well wonder why we still supported such late abortions and why we started down these roads of hybrids at all.

Two important consequences flow from these votes on embryology. The first is the need for strengthened regulatory authorities. There was a sense in the debate that Parliament was ‘passing the buck’. A legislative framework may have been agreed. But it still requires fundamental interpretation as every new step requires licensing. In the case of embryo screening and selection for ‘saviour siblings’, for example, this must be done for a ‘serious reason’.

What does that mean? Will we find ourselves in the same situation as a ‘hair lip’ condition being sufficient for an abortion? We need a strong regulatory authority if such ‘saviour siblings’ are not going to be used for more than bone marrow or cord blood donations. After all even these are invasive treatments on a child, without that child’s consent and not in the least for the advantage of that child.

The task of these regulatory bodies must be to ensure that scientific pragmatism is always counter-balanced with ethical considerations. They must not be dominated by scientific interest. Rather, the ethical duty we owe to early human life, especially in its first 14 days, needs to be an essential part of these considerations along with stringent scrutiny of claims of possible benefit from the use of that life. If not, then early human life will become unprotected ‘fair game’ for any use at all. Indeed it could be argued that we are there already!

The second consequence is that, in the aftermath of these decisions, attention must not be taken away from other avenues of research and activity which are known to be producing therapies already. Adult stem cell work, work with umbilical cord blood and the production of pluripotent stem cells do not involve the destruction of embryos and are all ethically acceptable. Some are producing cures right now.

The Catholic Bishops of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland have made a significant financial contribution to this research in the last week. The adventure of seeking further understanding down the roads now permitted by law must not deprive this more fruitful research of proper and sustained funding.

We must also build up cord blood banks. Britain is 13th in the European league of national cord blood banks, yet it is accepted that such banks would remove the need for ‘saviour siblings’

We always have to remember that because something has been made legal it does not thereby become moral. The relationship between the law of the land and the moral code is complex. The two are not to be confused. Sources of moral reflection and judgement are not particularly to be found in parliamentary debate. This is why we need a National Bio-ethics Commission so that the wisdom of philosophers and moral theologians, using rational ethical argument and the light of revealed truth, a wonderful gift of God, can be brought to this task. But Parliament itself is not a reliable moral tutor.

Indeed, this was virtually admitted this week by Harriet Harman, Labour’s Deputy Leader, when, in stating that marriage has little relevance in public policy, she explained that it is not for the Government to say that it would like everyone to be happy. Yet the very task of ethics and moral thinking is precisely to help us in our search for happiness. In saying that this quest for happiness has little ‘public policy bite’, she is indeed saying that ethical considerations are of little concern.

This makes less surprising the defeat of the need for fathers in considerations for IVF treatment and the consequent down-playing of the role of fathers in general. Individual choice is not a sure road to happiness in a family, nor indeed for our human community as a whole.

But let’s return to the 14 days. At present this is a crucial point of protection for human life under the law. But how long will it last? Who will be the first to say that by extending this limit to 20 or 30 days so much more would be learned? Yet the counting of these days will still go back to day one – the moment of fertilisation. After all, that is when it all begins – you and I, and every human life."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If only he didn't support sex education for 4 year olds..

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