Embryo stem-cell research: time for a moral benchmark

Embryo stem-cell research: time for a moral benchmark

Christopher Pyne MP

The following article is adapted from an address given at a Right to Life Conference, Xavier College, Melbourne, on 27 June 2004, by Hon Christopher Pyne MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Family and Community Services.

Ours is an age in which there are insidious invitations all the time to embrace policies which devalue human life. Politicians, who have to vote on legislation, have to answer both to their own consciences and to their electorates, feel them as keenly as anyone.

What could be more natural than to turn a blind but complaisant eye to the switching off of the life-support machines, or the compassionate starvation of people who seem tragically reduced to a vegetative state?

What more forward-looking and courageous than to endorse the use of embryo stem cell research which, whatever ecclesiastical pedants and bio-ethicists may say, seems to offer the hope of revolutionary new cures for Altzheimer's Disease and many other cruel afflictions?

What could be more humane than to feel the pain of a pregnant teenage girl and to disregard old, rigid dogma and free her from the unwanted, probably unintended, consequences of a youthful indiscretion which would otherwise circumscribe her life chances?

There are answers to these questions, although they are in some ways harder to offer in the public domain and to defend than at any time in our history as a nation. The best and surest foundation for a response is also the most unfashionable. United Nations rhetoric talks of the sanctity of human life, and quite rightly so. But it is only when we talk about God that sanctity cuts any ice.

I would go further and, while honouring all faiths, argue for an understanding of the sanctity of life anchored in what Christianity tells us about life. I am a Catholic, but I think all the churches share a common view of what the theology of the Incarnation has to offer on this crucial question. When Christ took our human nature upon Himself, He sanctified it for all time. He redeemed our fallen nature. Our lives are not somehow sacred because of our superior intelligence to apes or pussycats - or because we are the most adaptable mammals - or because we can make music or art. It is because we are called to be sons and heirs, inheritors in eternal life.

It is because of that calling that every human spark of the divine indwelling is to be accorded dignity - whether an embryo, a fetus, or at the other extreme of life, a frail person in old age or debility. Sanctity is of its nature non-negotiable. Human life is either sacred, however precarious or vestigial it may seem to us, or it is not. The soundest practice, it seems to me, is for us always try to imagine things as God sees them, rather than in terms of "practicality" or mere convenience.

Sanctity of life

Of course, in a world which is ever more relentlessly secular, appealing to revealed religion is apt to convince only those who are already persuaded. For many, the argument about the sanctity of human life needs to be couched in purely human terms. To them I say: we can best understand life's sanctity by considering its negation, and in recent history there is one defining example, the Holocaust or, as Jewish people call it, the Shoa.

The annihilation of six million people on grounds as grotesque as race defies any easy understanding. It is so far beyond the human pale, so monstrous a wrong. As the great American scholar, Peter Berger, put it: "There are some crimes so terrible that they cry out to the very heavens for judgement and for vengeance". It incarnates what people everywhere can recognise as evil. It offends something instinctual and primordial in us, namely our sense of justice and the fitness of things.

George Steiner, whose meditations on the Shoa in Language and Silence rival those of Primo Levi, the writer who survived Auschwitz, has some memorable and disturbing things to say. He tells us that, for European civilisation there can now only be "time before Auschwitz and time after it". He also tells us that it was the critical moment in which the music of Bach, of Schubert, and of Wagner - and the German culture from which they sprang - had been put to the test and found somehow wanting, because camp commandants could listen to them with a clear conscience as they went about their dreadful work.

Most powerfully and poignantly, perhaps, he talks of the Jewish intellectuals who believed that God had turned his back on them, had abandoned those he had once chosen and was deaf to their prayers and pleas for mercy and succour. To them it seemed that God had abandoned his universe, because only in his absence could such evils be.

In the moral vacuum of the camps, where no value was set on human life - apart from the cost of food or crematorium fuel and the quantity of forced labour -, we have the first foretaste of 21st century utilitarian medicine. Where life was reckoned so cheap, pioneering genetic experiments on identical twins were as unsurprising as the use of humans to test new poisons and the relative toxicity of nerve gases. To a regime which had long practised eugenics-based murder on the physically or intellectually handicapped among its own people, using Jewish children in bizarre experiments ending in their death was simply using expendable laboratory supplies.

Twenty-first century utilitarian medicine, the research funded and practised in our universities, is too close to the research of the concentration camps for comfort. It squibs at what it is pleased to call fine distinctions between the ethical research that enjoys universal agreement and the lucrative borderline activities of embryo stem cell experimentation. Yet we all know that it is a sort of medicine, a sort of research, which no generation previous to our own could possibly have sanctioned.

They knew what most of us still know, or at least intuit. That is to say, that there are limits to the way in which doctors and medical researchers can play God, or usurp a role beyond the Hippocratic Oath, as lords of life and death wherever Medicare's writ rules. In some crucial matters it may already be too late.

Moral benchmark

It may be that abortion is now ensconced as a woman's right, beyond any kind of appeal in the name of the child. It may be that de facto forms of euthanasia are entrenched as a new birthright of the aged, beyond any kind of appeal in the name of those who say they don't want to be a burden on their children. Embryo stem cell research may be the last stand. And here it is perhaps still possible to assert a moral benchmark. All the medical research funded by the Commonwealth ought to be subject to rigorous ethical appraisal.

The claims made for embryo stem cell research, puffed shamelessly in recent months by the press, are by and large immune to moral scrutiny. The merest suggestion that a disease may one day be cured is, it seems, enough to ward off any kind of criticism as reactionary and obscurantist. But there are hard questions which demand answers.

Even in this contemporary world, where it is so much easier to be a spectator than a contestant in the battle of ideas, the answer to me seemed obvious.

Tragically,to many of my colleagues, the answer seemed equally obvious. Yet many of those who voted in favour of embryo stem cell research would regard themselves as practising Christians. How then could they believe that there was no moral dimension to the sacrificing of the potential life of the embryo in pursuit of society's insatiable demands? They can best answer for themselves.

But it leaves us with a challenge. Will we witness the next depressing signpost on the road to the devaluation of human life without putting up a fight?

I have more faith in our fellow human beings than that. I'm sure, with our faith, our only sure light to guide us, that people of like mind will rally together against the next great degradation - human cloning.

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