It's time to engage the 'conscience of the nation' on bioethics


Thomas MoreI make no claim to being a bioethicist. I daresay Thomas More made no such claim, and would not, even were he alive today. Even those of us who are not bioethicists are entitled to our opinions about the desirable law and policy affecting bioethical issues and about the political morality of those advocates who urge a particular law or policy on bioethical issues.

I make no claim to speak for the Catholic Church. But inspired by Thomas More, I trust I take my inspiration from Catholic moral teaching as I then wrestle with questions about what is the appropriate law or policy on vexed issues in Australia.

As a Jesuit and a lawyer I take some heart from that scene in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret, says, ‘Father, that man’s bad.’ More answers, ‘There is no law against that.’ His son–in–law, William Roper: ‘There is! God’s law!’ More: ‘Then God can arrest him. . . . The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal. . . . I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.’ Alas we must sail in the currents and eddies of right and wrong as well as tracing our path through the thickets of law and public policy.

In recent months, I have been drawn into public discussion about bioethical issues twice – first with the release of the Lockhart Review on stem cell research and then with Parliament’s debate on RU486. On each occasion I have been assisted in my own thinking by the public utterances of Bishop Anthony Fisher who is well schooled and learned in bioethical issues and the Catholic tradition.

I have bought into the controversy over stem cell research because I have thought that the Lockhart Committee exceeded its brief, and am convinced that some of the advocates for embryonic stem cell research have played fast and loose with the processes of political deliberation.

Involved tangentially in these issues, I have become concerned that the church risks marginalising itself and rendering its message incomprehensible. There must be acknowledgment by church leaders of the margin of appreciation afforded conscientious Catholic lawmakers and policy makers on issues about which there is no moral or scientific unanimity in the Catholic Church, let alone in the Australian community generally.

Legislation Review CommitteeIn the field of bioethics, our next national debate will be about the recommendations of the Lockhart review on stem cell research and experimentation on human embryos.

Some church leaders are convinced that even the deliberate creation of excess embryos so as to assist an infertile couple with IVF is morally wrong. But even they would need to admit that the conscience of the nation is not with them on that. If the Catholic view will not permit even the creation of embryos in these circumstances, then the moral purity of the view will do nothing to command the respect or assent of most lawmakers wanting to know the appropriate legal limits to impose on citizens of all faiths and none when it comes to embryo experimentation.

Some religious persons claim to have a comprehensive world view, confident that their religious tradition provides them with insights and moral clarity about all social questions. These citizens need to be cautious lest they disrespectfully foist their views on other citizens who see the world differently and in good faith.

There will be ongoing public disputes in drawing of the boundaries of humanity – at either end of the life cycle. Is the embryo to count as the property of the individual who is free to do with it as she wishes or is it to count as an entity deserving of respect and protection by the state against the citizen who wants to view this entity merely as a collection of cells to be experimented upon or aborted?

The Catholic Church hierarchy has been the group most consistent in proclaiming the right to life of the embryo. If the embryo has a right to life, obviously it is in need of legal protection because it is the most vulnerable of the ‘human family’. Vatican statements have been quite consistent in developing a coherent argument from this premise. But those who do not accept the premise are then troubled by the conclusions drawn by the Vatican. They are also fortified in their view that the Vatican’s conclusions and formulae do not resonate with their own moral sense about the status of the human embryo.

There are many people who are philosophically competent and compassionate who argue that the disposal of a beaker of human embryos is not the moral equivalent of sending thousands of people to a gas chamber. Such people are not necessarily immoral or amoral.

Church regret at cloning approvalIf over half the embryos naturally produced in the womb fail to implant, should we be in mourning that over half the human race never develop beyond a couple of cells? The Vatican says, ‘In consequence of the fact that they have been produced in vitro, those embryos which are not transferred into the body of the mother and are called ‘spare’ are exposed to an absurd fate, with no possibility of their being offered safe means of survival which can be licitly pursued.’ Their fate is no more absurd than the fate of the majority of embryos which are never successfully implanted naturally.

True to my religious tradition, I am happy to view a human embryo respectfully as a human being in the earliest stages of development. I need to concede that in a democracy under the rule of law, the majority of citizens are entitled to work on the presupposition that a human embryo is not a human person but is an embryo deserving more respect than a pig embryo because it has at this stage only the potential to develop into a human being, into a human person.

Some church authorities argue that the state should never produce excess embryos even if the scientist is anxious to maximise the prospects of implantation of a healthy embryo. They need to counsel their own church members not to participate in IVF programs that produce excess embryos. They would know that many of their own church members do avail themselves of such programs because they are seeking life, seeking the fulfilment of their marriage remembering the hope on their wedding day that they would be able to bear and nurture each other’s children.

Religious leaders are entitled to agitate against laws and policies that would permit IVF procedures for infertile married couples when such procedures entail the knowing production of excess embryos. But there is little likelihood of such a position winning acceptance with many politicians given that they are popularly elected and each of them would have in their own electorate couples who want to avail themselves of this procedure convinced that there is nothing immoral in the procedure. In proposing a ban on such a procedure, the church authorities would be wrong to claim that they speak for all their members.

In the field of bioethics as well, we now face a national debate about the recommendations of the Lockhart review on stem cell research and experimentation on human embryos. The Australian Parliament and the Council of Australian Governments now need to decide what legislative changes, if any, are required in response to the Lockhart review of the 2002 laws prohibiting human cloning and regulating research on human embryos.

Lawmakers have been wrestling with this new technology debating where to draw the line on human cloning, attempting to regulate scientists in their search for cures to many diseases using human embryonic stem cells as well as adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are presently taken only from human embryos. Thus the harvesting of embryonic stem cells presently requires the destruction of the embryo.

In Australia, as elsewhere there has been a consensus among lawmakers that cloning to produce children should be prohibited. The contest has been over the limits to impose on cloning for biomedical research, sometimes mistakenly called therapeutic cloning.

On the vast plain of embryo research, there are two Rubicons. The Australian community may well have crossed the first in 2002, given the lack of community reaction to the Parliament’s decision to permit experimentation on excess embryos which were created with the intention of their being part of a project aimed at successful implantation of one of the batch, and with the strict requirement that there not be any more embryos created than were required for a successful implantation of a healthy embryo. But there is a second Rubicon. That is where we now stand.

Beyond this second Rubicon is a city where the scientist is justified in creating human life merely so that he might experiment upon it and destroy it without the need for any respect of the dignity of that potential human life. Some of the Australian community are not even prepared to cross the first Rubicon. Our parliament having crossed the first Rubicon in 2002 and having deliberately stopped short of crossing the second, there is still no evidence of a change in community standards that would warrant the second crossing. There is still, of course, also the prospect that embryonic stem cells could be produced without the need first to produce a human embryo and then destroy it. This would to some extent render obsolete the debate over embryo research.

Not all Catholics, and not all bishops, will agree with all the arguments I have put this evening. We need to engage in respectful dialogue attentive to the different realms of science, morality, law, public policy, and public administration, helping each other as we set about sailing amidst the currents and eddies of right and wrong, and cutting through the thickets of the law.

This essay is taken from the text of the 2006 Sir Thomas More Lecture, which was a response to the Lockhart review. The full text is available here.



submit a comment

Existing comments

The fate of 'spare' embryos may be no more absurd than the fate of embryos that are never implanted, but it is imposed on them by humans who are, or should be, subject to the laws of morality, and not by nature, which is not.

Gavan Breen | 28 June 2006  

Dare we still reference St Thomas More who had the scholarly and saintly Protestant translator of the Bible William Tyndale burned at the stake. Is this an 'inconvenient truth'? I tremble to mention St Robert Bellarmine.

Claude Rigney | 09 July 2008  

Similar Articles

How do believers deal with violence in their Scriptures?

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 26 June 2006

Muslim and Christian Scriptures both seem to endorse violence. This poses shared difficulties for interpreters of each faith. They need to explain how the Koran and the Bible can be described as the Word of God.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up