J. Alan Smith offers a pro-life commentary on the Bishop Harries’ recent article in support of the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill taking issue with him over his perception of the early embryo

Richard, the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, former Bishop of Oxford, wrote an article in the Church Times on 8 February 2008, ‘Why Christians should back the Bill’, in support of the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill. This article comments on his views from a pro-life perspective. Direct quotations from the article are prefixed ‘RH.
Fourteen-day principle

RH: After this first child conceived using in vitro fertilisation was born [Louise Brown], the Government set up a commission, chaired by Mary, now Baroness Warnock, to regulate this whole area. Its recommendation was that the early embryo should be accorded a degree of respect, and given a legal protection that reflects this. It is this fundamental principle that underlies all the law on the subject. In short, the early embryo does not have the rights of an adult or baby. On the other hand, as a potential child, it is not just tissue.

Although this principle has official support in most countries, a significant number of people subscribe to the pro-life position that an innocent, individual human life should be protected from its very beginning until natural death.

The use of the term ‘potential child’ avoids the fact that we are all partly actual and partly potential. A human embryo does not start as a potential human and become an actual human ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, but continually actualizes his potential in the sight of him who is pure act.

The respect accorded the early embryo stretches the meaning of the word to breaking point. Since he accepts that the early embryo may be the subject of destructive experiments, the degree of respect he accords the early embryo is very similar to the degree of respect the Walrus and the Carpenter accorded the Oysters.

Fertility treatment and research

RH: The Roman Catholic position, which is shared by many Evangelicals and some Anglicans, is that ‘Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.’ The implication of this view must be fully faced. It means ruling out IVF altogether; for this treatment involves taking a number of eggs from the woman, fertilising them, and implanting in the womb the two that are most likely to flourish. Those that are not frozen for further use (either because the first treatment failed, or to produce siblings) are destroyed.

Quite so. A process that, of necessity, produces large numbers of humans destined for destruction is unacceptable. The excuse of the nurse in Mr Midshipman Easy, ‘If you please, ma’am, it was a very little one’, does not work here either.

RH: The implication of the RC view is very serious for the large number of women who now need fertility treatment. People are marrying later and having children later, when chances of conceiving are less, and there is an increase in conditions such as obesity, which again diminish the chances of fertility.

This is a utilitarian argument to justify IVF. No consideration seems to have been given either to education programmes to point out to women who want children the advantages of marrying earlier and seeking to conceive earlier or to economic changes that would assist such women.

RH: Fertility treatment is vital for a growing number of women.

This is a slipshod use of language: infertility is a painful burden for sufferers but it is not life-threatening: treatment for someone with total failure of both kidneys is vital. Nevertheless, I agree that fertility treatment is a good, but it must be provided ethically: it would be utilitarian and unacceptable if such a good were sought through unethical means.

RH: …research on early embryos is necessary to try to bring help to people suffering from a range of serious diseases. Whether or not research on early embryos would bring help to people suffering from a range of serious diseases, the fundamental objection remains: it would be wrong to perform destructive experiments on Brown in order to benefit Jones.

RH: There is another implication of the Roman Catholic position. It rules out using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This involves taking some cells from the dividing embryo and testing them for certain inherited diseases. It means that a healthy rather than diseased embryo can be implanted in the womb. It enables children to be born without crippling, death-dealing diseases such as cystic fibrosis. Do we really want pregnant mothers either to seek an abortion later, or to bear a child who is subject to great suffering when they have a real choice to bring into being a healthy one? The principled pro-life objection to IVF that it produces large numbers of humans destined for destruction applies even if they suffer from inherited diseases. PGD would enable children to be born without crippling, death-dealing diseases’ only if all human life started with IVF. The logic of the argument would lead to the banning of natural conceptions. Aldous Huxley described such a society in Brave New World.

Furthermore, the subliminal message he is sending to those suffering from ‘crippling, death-dealing diseases’ is: ‘You should not be here.’

Opposition to abortion

RH: I take a gradualist approach towards the moral status of the early embryo and developing foetus. One reason is that this gradualist approach is reflected in the main tradition of the Western Church from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries. Abortion has always been regarded as a serious sin, but, for 1500 years, the Church made a distinction in the penalties, depending on whether it was an early or late abortion. It was only in 1869 that Pope Pius rejected the distinction, and brought about the present position of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is not unreasonable for the Church’s teaching on abortion to evolve as the medical knowledge of pregnancy developed. Would the leaders of the Church in the fourth century have taken the same view of abortion had they known that, from the first moment of its existence, a human embryo is a member of the species, homo sapiens’? Suppose Pope Pius and his successors had not ‘rejected the distinction’; just imagine what criticism would be levelled at them.

RH: A second consideration is what happens at about 14 days after fertilization. At this point, a dark line can be identified in the developing embryo, which is the beginning of the nervous system. After this point, we have a single human individual. Before this, we have a tiny bundle of multiplying cells, the majority of which go to form the placenta and umbilical cord, and which may result in two or more embryos being implanted in the womb. This seems a significant moral, as well as scientific boundary. It is this primitive streak that is enshrined in law in relation to the 14-day limit on what can be done to the embryo.
In born humans, the continuity of the person does not require the retention of the same constituent cells: cells are replaced on a regular basis and some cells are excreted every day. The phrase ‘a tiny bundle of multiplying cells’ is misleading, for it could imply a random collection of cells that just happen to have come together. In fact, that ‘bundle’ controls its own development into one or more embryos.

Loss of natural embryos

RH: Another important factor for me is that we now know that more than two-thirds of fertilised eggs are lost anyway in natural conceptions. Nature is prodigal. God has given us brains and skills to interact with natural processes in order to hone what nature does to enhance human health and well-being.

There is here an implication that if, within a certain subgroup of the species, two-thirds die of natural causes, then it would be all right to experiment on the rest. If two-thirds of the House of Bishops were to die spontaneously, would the rest be legitimate candidates for experimentation? Moreover, in many parts of the world there is a high death rate among newly-born children. If the death rate is sufficiently high, would this degrade the status of the survivors and enable us to use them as sources of spare parts?

The slippery slope

RH: Before 14 days, the early embryo is not, in my view, a human individual, and therefore what we do at this stage is not instrumentalizing human beings. But perhaps we are on a slippery slope, so that we are influenced to treat the later foetus in an instrumental way? If we fear a slippery slope, then we need something firm to hang on to. We have this in the form of the 14-day rule. All embryos that have been used in research have to be destroyed before that. And we have the firm legal rule that no embryo that has been so used can be implanted in a woman’s womb.

Lord Harries denies that the early embryo is a human individual but does he deny that it can contain two or more human individuals? I, myself, was once an early embryo, or, possibly, the only survivor of two or more human individuals in that early embryo.

He shows a touching faith in the future when he writes: ‘we have the firm legal rule that no embryo that has been so used [in research] can be implanted in a woman’s womb.’ We are not talking here of the law of the Medes and the Persians, but of the modern world, in which the only limits on changes to the law are what public opinion is prepared to tolerate.

RH: So while we must continue to watch developments carefully, and science is advancing all the time, I believe we have enough in place to ensure that we do not cross important moral boundaries.

Cross important moral boundaries? Some may think that we crossed a significant moral boundary in 1967. I am reminded of the Giles cartoon in the last year of the Second World War in which one German soldier says to his comrade: ‘You can cut out all that ‘They Shall Not Pass’ stuff. Their advance columns went past hours ago.’