The Church and the British Government’s Human Embryology Research Bill

One of the big stories over this side of the Atlantic in Britain this week is the debate in parliament over the government’s human embryology research bill. This is, or should be, intensely controversial, not least because one of the possibilities being discussed is of allowing human and animal cells to be mixed. The Church criticised this suggestion on Monday, and was in turn criticised by the broadcaster and infertility expert, Lord Robert Winston. Winston stated that such research, using cells created from a mixture of human and animal genetic material, would lead to cures for disease, and that by opposing this the Church risked making itself look stupid.

Now I like Dr. Winston. He’s a great science presenter with a genial and avuncular manner. He did a fascinating programme on the development of the world religious faiths, The Story of God, on BBC television a few years ago. He’s a practising Jew, and managed to leave Richard Dawkins looking more than a little nonplussed on camera when he and Dawkins were discussing religion. Dawkins had made a statement, if I remember correctly, to the effect that he could see how many scientists took belief in God seriously, to which Winston quietly replied ‘I believe in God.’ Dawkins seemed to step back a bit, looked at him and questioned this. ‘Yes, I really do believe in God’, said Winston. I don’t think Dawkins really knew how to take this, as although Dawkins does recognise that many scientists are religious, it seems to me that he genuinely doesn’t understand how any scientifically educated person can still believe in God. Furthermore, Winstone gave a talk last year to the Edinburgh Association for the Advancement of Science criticising atheists like Dawkins for confusing atheism with science. I think he described such people as ‘deluded’.

However, I think he’s wrong on this point. Very wrong.

The opposition to such embryological research is based on very carefully reasoned positions on the dignity of human life. People aren’t just biochemical machines, but possessed of reason and the capacity for suffering. Human life has an innate dignity which extends also to its beginning in embryos and blastocytes, even though these may not be able to experience pain. The philosophical issues involving the treatment of human embryos, even if these are merely the few cells envisaged by the scientists engaged in this research, have implications for human dignity as a whole. Hence the opposition to such embryological research. For Jews and Christians, human dignity has its basis in the Biblical description of humanity made in the image of the Almighty, though this does not make it irrational. Philosophers have defended the innate dignity of human life against attitudes to reproduction that are felt to degrade this dignity through rational, logical argument. Now the Church’s attitude towards such research can be questioned, and arguments framed against it, but that does not mean that the Church’s attitude is stupid or wrong.

The statement that such experiments in creating human/animal hybrids would lead to cures for disease is also open to question. There is in fact no guarantee that this will occur. All that can be said is that those engaged in such research believe that it will lead to cures for disease. And the question remains that even if this were so, whether it would justify the moral danger of such research.

Parallels to Controversy over Embryonic Stem Cells

There are parallels here to the controversy in America a year ago about research into embryonic stem cells. The use of such material from embryos was being advocated as holding insights to any number of important biological questions, including the replacement of other cells damaged by disease or aging. It promised cures for a number of acutely debilitating conditions. Nevertheless, George Bush’s administration felt that federal funds could not be used to support this research, and it was believed that here Bush’s religious views and those of the Christian Right were important in blocking such funding. There was a storm of protest from the scientific community engaged in the research, and it was presented in parts of the science press as a case of retrogressive religion holding back the progress of science and medicine.

Other scientists involved in stem cell research, however, pointed out that there were major flaws in the supposed usefulness of embryonic stem cells and stated that adult stem cells were far more suitable for such research. I remember reading an article about it in a Right-wing American Christian website, which quoted the Christian head of a biotech company as stating that his company was not engaged in embryonic stem cell research because of the serious technical difficulties in manipulating such cells compared to those from adults. Nevertheless the suitability of adult stem cells was apparently rejected in favour of embryonic stem cells by the vast majority of those engaged in such research. It was claimed that the support of research using adult, but not embryonic stem cells was part of a ‘Republican war on science’, and that adult stem cells could not possibility be manipulated so that they fulfilled the scientific and medical claims made for their use. Such criticism was contradicted last November when two labs, one in Wisconsin and the other in Japan, independently showed that adult stem cells could be induced to perform the functions being claimed for them. There are, however, still immense practical difficulties for the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, or so I understand.

My own feeling is that something similar may be the case with the claims made by British biotech researchers here that creating cells from animal and human material will lead to greater insights and cures for diseases. The claim that such hybrid cells could lead to medical advances may be misplaced or overstated. As well as being morally dubious, the science also may be flawed.

Parallels to the Ethical Debate over Cloning

There is also a further danger that such research will lead to a return to eugenics, assisted by modern biotechnology. In 1970 the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bentley Glass, declared that humanity should take control of its nature and try to transcend itself by altering its genotype. 1 As for the ethical dimensions of such research, while the ethics of science are given far greater attention and discussion than they were in the 1950s some scientists have commented that scientists engaged in such research are rarely interested in its ethical dimension. Lee Silver, the director of a molecular biology lab at Princeton, commenting on the cloning of Dolly the sheep, remarked ‘The scientists who do the research never think about the implications’, concluding that they did so because it might affect their ability to do research’. 2  

Now clearly medical research should be encouraged and supported, and the immense potential of science to cure and treat disease explored and realised. But this does not mean that all such research that claims to lead to cures for disease should be followed. For this reason I strongly hope that attempts to mix human and animal material to create hybrid cells, even for the noblest reasons of curing disease, will be rejected because of the immense moral danger it presents to humanity. The rejection of this type of research by the Church is neither stupid nor irrational, but an entirely rational response to the immense human moral cost involved.


1. Gina Kolata, Clone (London, Penguin 1997), p. 65.

2. Kolata, Clone, p. 35.

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11 Responses to “The Church and the British Government’s Human Embryology Research Bill”

  1. mattghg Says:

    It can be very difficult indeed to argue with consequentialists; indeed you might also draw parallels to the waterboarding debate here. Sure, these techniques might (and that’s a big might) lead to cures for diseases, but do we really believe the ends justify the means?

  2. Ilíon Says:

    … but do we really believe the ends justify the means?

    Not if we’re serious about our thoughts/positions and seriously thoughtful about how we arrive at and defend those positions.

    It can be very difficult indeed to argue with consequentialists; indeed you might also draw parallels to the waterboarding debate here.
    But, at the same time, if we are indeed serious about our thoughts/positions and seriously thoughtful about how we arrive at and defend those positions, we *also* understand that it is the motives and consequences (both actual and rationally foreseeable) which differentiate between two “identical” acts: one immoral, one moral-even-if-evil.

    Note: I assume that *you* understand that the word ‘evil,’ used correctly, does not really have a moral implication.

    But many these days do not understand that: people use ‘evil‘ when they mean ‘wicked.’

  3. JOR Says:

    Evil can be used to mean either ‘unpleasant/harmful’ or ‘immoral’. Both of these uses are legitimate.

  4. Ilíon Says:

    Bother someone else, OK? Your ways and behaviors, your disinclination to *think* (while presuming to lecture me on critical thinking), bore me.

    In any context where ‘evil’ is used, unless the speaker/writer explicitly says something like “moral evil” or “natural evil,” one has to bring one’s own assumptions into play to decide what is the probable intention of use of the word.

  5. JOR Says:

    That’s usually only the case with philosophers. In ordinary language evil is generally used to mean, not just ‘immoral’ but ‘very immoral’ or ‘violently immoral’.

    I’d be much obliged if shown an example of my disinclination to think. Unlike some people I find it helpful to have my errors pointed out, as I can then correct them.

  6. Ilíon Says:

    Don’t you think it at least mildly interesting, JOR, that *you* don’t particularly like the wounded-innocence game when someone tries to play it with you?

    Why don’t you try *reading* what I actually wrote. And then *read* your attempted objections in light of what I actually wrote.

  7. JOR Says:

    Ilion, when I think that someone is wrong I at least try to inform them of the substance of their errors. Even if I don’t like them.

    Anyway, you insisted that the proper use of the word evil has no moral implications. I voiced (typed, whatever) disagreement — I think the most common use of the word has moral implications, but there is an archaic use of the word that doesn’t; both are legitimate and you can almost always tell how it is being used in context, if you are attentive. Then you insulted me. What else is there to know?

  8. Ilíon Says:

    Then you insulted me.

    On top of everything else, you lie.

  9. JOR Says:

    You know what? I like Beast too much to clutter up his comments section with personal feuds.

  10. Ilíon Says:

    Didn’t I *ask* you to bother someone else?

  11. Ilíon Says:

    And if you are having a personal feud with me, well then, I suppose congratulations are in order … since these things generally take two parties and I am *trying* to ignore you because I just don’t care to deal with a significant portion of your behavior.

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