Following the appointment of Lord Harries as Chair of the HFEA,
Simon Heans examines his views on science
and the human embryo, and finds a surprising parallel

A generation or two ago, there were the fellow travellers. They were writers, artists, scientists, even clergymen, who, while not being members of the Communist Party themselves, nevertheless identified with its aims and values.

Newly appointed to chair the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Lord Harries, the former bishop of Oxford, is also a fellow traveller. I am not suggesting of course that he is a crypto-Communist. However, he is a believer in Science, Progress and Equality. And it was those beliefs that characterized the Communist fellow travellers of the last century.

The role of science

On taking up his appointment, Harries gave an interview to two journalists from The Times. Their article begins, ‘It isn’t often that you get to meet God. Happily we can report that he turns out to be a charming, sandy-haired grandfather with more than a passing resemblance to Gregory Peck.’ Then, somewhat inconsistently, they accuse him of relishing the prospect of ‘playing God’.

They are obviously wrong on the first count, but their second statement is also incorrect: the bishop does not see himself in the role of God for he has already cast scientists in that role. He is quoted as saying that ‘it is part of our God-given talent and ability to engage in scientific research… a very, very fundamental part of what it is to be a human being.’ Notice the repetition of ‘very’: the bishop is clearly stating a deeply-held conviction. He believes there is something, rather a lot actually, of the divine in Science.

Then there is his belief in Progress. He was asked to comment in the interview on so-called ‘Frankenbunnies’, ‘chimeric’ embryos that will be 99.9% human and 0.1% rabbit or cow, which scientists soon intend to apply to the HFEA for the licence to create. Would such a hybrid be a human embryo? Harries was not sure but he hoped it would be, because a contrary decision ‘would begin to undermine confidence in scientific work in this area.’ The HFEA must rally round the banner of Progress even if its results are so obviously gruesome.

Though enthusiastic about the horrid hybrid, the journalists noticed he was not so keen to talk about the religious issues raised by the research. He had to be pressed to give his opinion of the status of such an embryo in the eyes of God, and became uncomfortable while doing so. ‘We don’t know at the moment’ was the best he could offer by way of an answer. But though the bishop was uncertain about its status in the eyes of God, the interviewers were left in no doubt as to its status in the eyes of the bishop. They noted that when referring to the embryo ‘he keeps using the word entity’.

Age and gender

Equality is the third element in the bishop’s ideology. And in respect of the HFEA that means equality in parenting, an outcome that Harries is pleased that scientific progress makes possible. The biological barriers that once caused inequality in this area can now be overcome. For example, age need no longer be a barrier: he is opposed to the upper age limit of 39 for IVF treatment and will not say a word against 62-year-old Patricia Rash-brook who travelled to Italy to have IVF. ‘Well, I think I respected her choice. I mean, men can conceive at a vast age.’ He favours scrapping the clause in the 1990 Human Embryo and Fertilisation Act relating to the child’s need for a father: T don’t think it’s very useful because I think studies have shown that people of the same sex together can make good parents.’ There is to be gender as well as age equality. In fact, the bishop believes that moral judgement itself must give way to the demands of Equality. A person’s suitability for IVF treatment should be solely for the person’s GP to decide.

Two years ago in this journal [Dec 2004], the noted Anglican pro-life campaigner, J. Alan Smith, challenged the view of the human person that Harries derives from this ideology of scientism, progressivism and egalitarianism. In an article in the Church Times and in the House of Lords debate on stem cell research, Harries sought to argue for ‘a developmental view of the human person in order to justify experimentation on and destruction of human embryos. As Alan Smith wrote there, ‘The fundamental problem in the position taken by the Bishop of Oxford is his acceptance of the existence of a human (the embryo) who is not a person.’ When, he wanted to know, does the change from the potentially human to full human being take place? Is it, he asked, at ‘implantation, birth, or, perhaps, consecration?’

Theology or ideology?

The issue is indeed whether the embryo is human life or not. In his House of Lords speech, Harries claimed to have discovered an alternative Christian tradition (where have we heard that line before?) to support his view that the embryo ‘has a special status, even though not an absolute one’. Of course in the New-speak of the bishop, ‘special’ means ‘may be killed’. Not very special obviously!

The Dominican, David Albert Jones op, shows that whatever arguments there have been in the Church’s history over the precise status of the human embryo (for example, Aquinas’ ‘delayed ensoulment’), there was never any question of it being ‘special’ in the bishop’s sense (his critique can be found at ). I agree with both Alan Smith and Albert Jones in their criticisms of the bishop. But I wonder if they give his position a respect it does not deserve by taking it seriously as theology when it is clearly ideological. What else could explain why Harries reasons in this perverse manner about the human embryo?

I have suggested that Harries is best described as a fellow traveller, but with what revolution? The answer is the Sexual or Reproductive revolution which, like the Communist revolutions, has had millions of victims, but which, unlike them, continues to claim them. Harries regrets them. ‘There are too many abortions,’ he tells The Times journalists. And that is exactly what the original fellow travellers said about the murders committed in the name of their revolution.