Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter and Human-Aminal Embryo Research

Hybrids are made from an animal egg mixed
with human genes

Over the Easter period perhaps the biggest issue in the British news has been that of scientific research using animal-human hybrid embryos. The issue has been smoldering for a while, but legislation is being thrust with indecent haste through Parliament to allow British scientists, within careful limits, to create and use in research these chimeras. Last week in his Easter message this development was challenged by the Cardinal Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien stated, "It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular bill." The Cardinal's words hit the nail firmly on the head, and others have supported and endorsed his deep anxiety about what is going on. Bishop Tom Wright of Durham said in his Easter sermon that "Our present government (is) pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby."

Bishop Tom goes on to say, "We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Reduce such dangerous beliefs to abstract, timeless platitudes. The irony is that this secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we (it’s interesting to ask who ‘we’ might be at this point) have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people, and to play games with the humanity of those in between. Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species-bending. Look how clever we are! Utopia must be just round the corner."

For some years now I have been asserting that one of the most pressing issues before us is just what does it means to be human. As Tom Wright implied on Easter Sunday, the whole sexuality debate and controversy is merely a symptom of the confusion that prevails, for the culture has abandoned anything that approaches a Judeo-Christian understanding of humans as beings made in the image of a sovereign God, while at the same time providing no alternative to take its place. Indeed, not only has no clear alternative emerged, but those who question this so-called scientific advance are being painted (and not for the first time) as spoilers and obscurantists, and that their thinking is an attempt to draw a red herring across the path of scientific advance.

Yet what is spoiling and obscurantist about insisting that we need carefully to define our terms in order to understand where we are and what we are doing before we proceed with a particular course of action? As I have listened to the debate over this past weekend, it has appeared that the government is utterly determined to shove legislation allowing this kind of scientific activity through the House of Commons, so much so that it has little sympathy for the conviction of members of its own party who for religious and/or ethical reasons are saying, "Hey, wait a minute..."

The reasoning for proceeding with this course of action is pretty threadbare:

1. There are nationalistic commercial reasons for doing this -- we don't want to tie our scientists' hands behind their back in such a way that it prevents Britain from retaining its position as a global leader in biogenetic research. Such an argument should hardly surprise us because we live in an environment in which economics is king, and if there is an unstated definition in our society of what it means to be human it is that homo sapiens is a consumer and creator of wealth: "I spend, therefore I am."

2. The stated morality behind research of this kind is that out of it might come cures for some of the dreadful diseases that assail millions of people, old and young, around the world. Evan Harris, A Liberal Democrat MP who is a member of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, has said that it is right to conduct research that "might be used to treat people with terrible diseases".

There is a legitimacy to such an argument, but to date the track record arising out of so much biogenetic research suggests that the promise is more significant than outcomes and results. Besides, is it justifiable to destroy or radically tamper with life in the hope that from such activities will come positive outcomes for the human race?

In the last forty years I have been up close to many of the diseases researchers are determined to eradicated, and have pastored (and buried) many who have been suffering from them. Of course, I would love to see such horrible maladies wiped out because I have seen their consequences in the lives of sufferers and their families, but I find myself stumbling over the question of whether it is right to destroy life in order to save life. In this case, does the end justify the means? If we believe that human beings reflect God's image then it is hard to answer in the affirmative. Those who argue along these lines have succumbed to the crudest form of utilitarian thinking.

3. The third argument is that science must be allowed to advance for we stand on the brink of a whole new frontier, and we won't know what opportunities might lie just around the corner if we don't follow this path. True, but the counter-question then has to be posed whether it is appropriate for our race to find out. Just because something is possible does not make it either necessary or right. It is entirely possible for a pilot to land a plane full of passengers on a busy road or a playing field, but only in one landing in a million is it right to do so.

Behind such thinking as this, and it has been expressed variously in a number of books that I have read, is the conviction that we are on the cusp of a new evolutionary development -- and what is so exciting about it is that this time we human beings can control and direct that development (and do not have to leave it to outside, supposedly random, forces). This is a notion that is deeply ingrained in the whole transhuman movement, and that movement is of significant influence in certain scientific circles. While I am not saying that pursuing such a path of research has Frankenstein qualities, I am saying that those who enthusiastically pursue such studies either have not properly thought through the long-term consequences of their actions, or are quite happy about being in such a driver's seat.

The mentality of those who believe this line of research is right seems to reduce human beings -- men, women, babies, fetuses, embryos, -- from being flesh that reflects the divine nature into products to be used and mixed in the process of manufacture -- whether it be manufacture of cures for diseases, or ends up as being something more sinister.

Now as soon as someone says such a thing the champions of such research throw their arms in the air and say that we untutored ignoramuses are meddling in something that is not any of our business. We might respond by affirming that while we may not be experts in this field, is it appropriate for a self-appointed scientific priesthood to make these kind of decisions for the whole human race, for human-animal embryos are playing with the DNA that is at the very root of every persons' being.

It also seems that today, especially when Christians start raises objections to something that is going on, the rejoinder is that it is none of our business, and shouldn't the Church keep its nose out of areas of endeavor and discovery that do not concern it. We have to respond in this instance, "Sorry, but this does concern us very much. We are human beings, we believe there is purpose in God creating us in the way he has, and while meddling with the building blocks of life in this way may not immediately result in some terrible disaster what does it say about the value of being human?"

Let me leave the final words with Bishop Tom Wright:

"Have we learnt nothing from the dark tyrannies of the last century? It shouldn’t just be Roman Catholics who are objecting. It ought to be Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Russian Orthodox and Pentecostals and all other Christians, and Jews and Muslims as well. This isn’t a peripheral or denominational concern. It grows directly out of the central facts of our faith, because on Easter day God reaffirmed the goodness and image-bearingness of the human race in the man Jesus Christ, giving the lie simultaneously to the idea that utopia could be had by our own efforts and to the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will. The Christian vision of what it means to be human is gloriously underscored by the resurrection of Jesus, and we as Easter people should make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology as in so much besides.

…The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the final putting-to-rights of all things. In the light of the resurrection, the church must never stop reminding the world’s rulers and authorities that they themselves will be held to account, and that they must do justice and bring wise, healing order to God’s world ahead of that day. Those who want to depoliticize the resurrection must first dehistoricize it, which is of course what they have been doing enthusiastically for many years - and then we wonder why the church has sometimes sounded irrelevant! But we who celebrate our risen Lord today must bear witness to Easter, God’s great act of putting-right, as the yardstick for all human justice."

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