Saturday 10 September 2011

Anscombe Centre points in a better ethical direction than Parliament this week

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre held an impressive day conference this week at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, entitled Human embryo research: law, ethics and public policy.

Anthony McCarthy, SPUC's education and publications manager, Joe Lee, SPUC Scotland's development officer, and I joined an international gathering of delegates to hear leading academics from Ireland, Italy, Germany, the US, France and Britain explain the status of the human embryo in their countries' laws and public policies.

All the addresses given deserve future re-reading and study and I look forward to their promised publication in due course.

Dr David Albert Jones, the director of the Anscombe Centre, gave a fascinating insight into why Britain has one of the least restrictive policies on human embryo research in the world: "Not only", Dr Jones said, "does UK law permit every conceivable category of embryo to be created for research, but it also shows little evidence of willingness to restrict human embryo research in practice. By 2008, 2 million embryos had been destroyed in clincal practice or research in the UK. In the same period the regulator (the HFEA) had only once refused a research license, and this was later granted on appeal."

Commenting on Dame Mary Warnock's report*  on the basis of which the British Parliament voted in 1990 to legalise destructive research on human embryos for a wide range of purposes, Dr Jones said:
"Warnock's approach is highly problematic. It is disingenuous to call this an account of the status of the embryo. The embryo drops out of consideration and it is the moral feelings of objectors that are considered. But it fails also as an attempt to respect these feelings, for it does not critically engage with the arguments but treats concern about harm to the embryo as a mere expression of emotion, in contrast to the concern about benefit to patients which is treated as an objective concern."
I strongly recommend everyone to read the summary of Dr Jones's address or to read it in full when the proceedings of the day conference are published. (Two years ago, I wrote on one aspect of the theme Dr Jones explored with such expertise this week in a post entitled Reasonable-minded citizens should be genuinely frightened of Mary Warnock.)

Another talk deserving wide attention was entitled Regulation and Complicity: Preventing without prescribing harm. The talk was given by Dr Helen Watt, senior research fellow at the Anscombe Centre. Dr Watt's talk showed how "harm-minimising laws can present various problems of principle for legislators, of a kind often overlooked". She explained:
"The following analogy may be helpful in contrasting two approaches to harm prevention. Imagine that you are in charge of a men’s prison in which there are many non-marital sexual encounters, including many rapes. It is one thing for you to tell inmates of the prison that you wish to protect everyone from non-consensual sex: any case of rape by anyone in the prison will be most severely punished. This amounts to a ‘selective ban’ on one, and only one, form of sexual activity in the prison; all other activities are tolerated, if not encouraged, following national prison policy. Such a ban, or partial ban, seems reasonable in principle.

"Now imagine a system where you issue consent forms for prisoners to complete before all their sexual encounters, casual or otherwise. If, as I would argue, it is wrong to prepare for non-marital sex, whether or not the person knows this, to intend that others so prepare amounts to formal or deliberate cooperation in morally wrong behaviour. Even if the hope is that prisoners will be discouraged by the paperwork from embarking on new encounters, inviting them to wrongly begin preparing for such encounters is surely itself morally wrong. And it is wrong whatever the prisoners’ culpability: your own culpability may of course be very much greater should you happen to have a better grasp of the issues at stake."
Dr Watt went on:
" ... One problem for pro-life legislators in Britain is that any change to the abortion law may well encompass changes to the abortion form included in the Act to be amended – a form which has the look of something intended precisely for abortion-minded doctors to complete. So even if a proposed law were not, in its main content, an instruction on how to perform or prepare for abortions, but merely a selective ban on some abortions – ‘leaving’ some legal but ‘making’ none legal - the problem would be with what certainly looks like an offer to abortionists and others of a new way of preparing for abortion, albeit one embodying new restrictions."
I find it deeply encouraging that the Anscombe Centre was addressing some of its best minds to the fundamental challenge facing the pro-life movement and legislators who oppose abortion, human embryo research or other anti-life evils: What kind of legislative proposals and/or regulations may be ethically introduced and supported in response to unjust legal situations allowing human rights abuses such as abortion? After the confusion created by Nadine Dorries's inappropriate and unsound pregnancy counselling amendment, Dr Watt and the Anscombe Centre were pointing in a better ethical direction this week.

*The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd. 9314, London, 1984

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