Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Government commands Labour Peers to vote for human-animal hybrid embryos

Yesterday the Government told its members of the House of Lords to oppose an amendment seeking to ban the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. They did this during the first day of the Report stage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (or HFE) bill. The process is called "whipping", a quaint Parliamentary idiom which means "secures attendance for voting in a particular direction". An amendment to the bill was defeated by 268 votes to 96, a majority of almost three to one.

The Government is blatantly determined to push its legislation through Parliament. In this situation the major thrust of the pro-life campaign, the efforts of the churches, and the efforts of pro-life politicians, must be to expose the massive attack on the sanctity of human life and on the dignity of the human person which this Bill represents. Parliamentarians must decide: Are they on the side of right or wrong? Of good or of evil? Future generations will look back at how Parliamentarians voted and what they said during the debates - in the same way we look back now at the debates and voting on the Abortion Act 1967.

It's now all the more important that pro-lifers contact Peers to urge them to vote against the Bill at third reading which could be as early as the 28th of this month.

Lord Tebbit described the nature of the issues at stake as follows: "These are matters that are more of ethics than of technology. Because something is scientifically possible does not mean that it should be done. Because it might bring great benefits to particular people does not mean it should be done. If we accept arguments of that kind we are effectively saying that the end justifies the means."

Another notable part of the debate was an oft-repeated misrepresentation of Christian teaching on early human life. Lord Walton of Detchant claimed:

"Many centuries ago in the Roman Catholic Church, St Thomas Aquinas, that great theologian, averred that life did not begin until the foetus was capable of independent existence outside the womb, but a pope in the middle of the 19th century laid down the edict that life began the moment the sperm entered the egg. In consequence, people of the Roman Catholic faith, ever since that time, have believed firmly that they should oppose all aspects of embryonic research."

Lord Walton’s claim is easily rebutted. The Catholic church and its leading authorities (including St Thomas Aquinas), from the earliest times to today, have always forbidden the destruction of the fruits of conception. Differences of opinion among theologians before the mid-19th century related not to embryo destruction (always forbidden), but at which stage of development the embryo possessed a soul and whether lighter or harsher penalties should be applied for embryo destruction before and after the soul’s presence. St Thomas could only use the science available to him at the time, derived from Aristotle, which suggested that the embryo was not sufficiently developed enough to possess a soul until some weeks after conception. It was only in the mid-19th century and advances in embryology that scientists could be sure about the physical evidence of how human life begins (at fertilisation). The Catholic church therefore changed, not its teaching on the wrongness of embryo destruction, but its penalties for embryo destruction, to be equal from fertilisation onwards.