Friday, 6 June 2008

Don’t fall into the “we already have abortion on demand” trap – the law does matter

It is not only on the home front that legislators are considering permissive changes to abortion legislation. In the Australian state of Victoria, pressure is being applied to remove abortion from the criminal code altogether, that is, to completely decriminalise it. In response, the Catholic bishops of Victoria have produced a pastoral letter, directed to “the Catholic people of Victoria and all men and women of good will.” In it the bishops outline the reasons for the Church’s moral opposition to abortion, reasons that are “rationally grounded” and not ‘merely’ religious. There are good reasons for respecting and protecting every member of the human family, and many non-religious people have the same view.

Even though the practice of abortion in Victoria is effectively unrestricted, decriminalising it would nevertheless be a serious and final blow to the vestiges of protection for unborn children and their mothers. As the bishops note, the “Law is a great educator”, and “moving the regulation of abortion from the Crimes Act to the Health Act would also give strength to the fallacy that abortion is just an ordinary medical procedure.” That would represent a clear victory for pro-abortion forces. It would also completely remove any last remaining sense within the law - weakened as it is – of the “equality of all before the law.” Society’s most vulnerable would be completely deprived of any legal recognition of wrongs perpetrated against them. The bishops make it clear, “when a state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of the state based on law are undermined.”

How is this relevant to the UK?

Current proposals to change the law by pro-abortion MPs, whilst not full decriminalisation, are edging ever closer to it. The underlying drive behind the various proposals, by seeking to further liberalise abortion, is leading us in precisely the same direction as decriminalisation. For example, the amendments drafted by Dr Evan Harris MP, by removing the requirement for two doctors to authorise an abortion, and no longer requiring doctors to act in “good faith”, would make abortion more like any other medical procedure. The result will not only be more abortions but - similar to the effect that the Victorian decriminalisation will have - the public will be educated to think that abortion is really little different to the removal of a tumour.

The sentiment expressed by some MPs in the recent parliamentary debates has been overtly pro-abortion. Along with Andrew Lansley MP (shadow health secretary, Conservative), Nadine Dorries MP (also Conservative) wants abortions to be faster and safer, arguing on the grounds that early ones are better than late ones.

Claire Curtis-Thomas (Labour), a vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, is “not opposed to abortion. I believe that women should have the right to choose …. I would be much happier with 12 weeks—that is where I stand. Let women have the choice, but make it at 12 weeks." This is just the type of view that is not only consistent with decriminalisation, but at the very least implies that abortion should be a legal right. One wonders what these MPs would say if pressed on the point.

Amendments to widen access to abortion could be tabled at the next stage (the ‘Report’ stage) of the government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, expected early in July. These pro-abortion amendments may include promoting nurses as abortion practitioners, and extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. More babies will die if such amendments are passed.

I know that many people have worked very hard in the fight against the HFE bill. But today we must redouble our efforts to stop pro-abortion amendments being incorporated into the bill. Please order a quantity of our new leaflet "No to more abortion" and distribute them door-to-door, in the street and at churches. You can order a quantity of leaflets by emailing or by telephoning SPUC on 020 7091 7091.

It's essential to contact your MP to ask him/her to vote against amendments extending abortion access. You can contact your MP (and find out your MP's name) via or by writing to your MP at the House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA. Please remember to copy any replies you receive to Anthony Ozimic, SPUC political secretary, by email at or by post to SPUC.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

US pro-lifers likened to “Saudi extremists” by panellists at American launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

Last week saw the American launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, an international organisation founded by the former prime minister to ‘promote respect and understanding between the major religions’. At the much-publicised event, two of the panellists showed their respect and understanding of believers by comparing pro-life Americans to “Saudi extremists”. According to an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mr Blair distanced himself from the comment whilst talking to a journalist afterwards with the promise that that ‘could not be what they intended.’

I would have more faith in Tony Blair’s reported promise if he had repudiated his own extreme voting record on abortion, destructive research on human embryos and other such matters.

Some Catholic commentators have suggested that it’s “extreme” to expect him to repudiate his voting record on life issues. But as I’ve blogged in another context, if Tony Blair had voted for laws permitting the killing of Catholics or Jews or people from ethnic minorities or lethal experimentation on them, would Catholics be right to expect him publicly to renounce such laws and to repudiate his role in passing such legislation before being received into the Church?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Brazilian bishops affirm wrongness of all embryo destruction and abuse

In response to the recent Brazilian supreme court ruling allowing destructive research on surplus IVF embryos, the bishops of Brazil have reiterated that life, which begins “at fertilization,” should be protected “in all circumstances.” The bishops stated that the embryo is “a human life,” as confirmed by “embryology and biology, and therefore the human embryo has the right to be protected by the State.”

The bishops "reaffirm that the mere fact of being in the presence of a human being demands full respect for his integrity and dignity: any behavior that could constitute a threat or an offense to the fundamental rights of the human person, the first of which is the right to life, is considered gravely immoral”.

The Brazilian bishops' statement is important. It is sometimes asserted in pro-life circles, for example, that IVF practices are tolerable, permissible or even desirable - even though IVF practices involve embryo destruction, embryo freezing and the foreseen death or "wastage" of surplus embryos. Similarly, some people also believe (wrongly) that, while embryo destruction is wrong, there is nothing wrong with IVF from a secular ethical perspective if no embryo destruction takes place. IVF, however, is in fact intrinsically wrong from a secular ethical perspective, whether or not embryo destruction takes place. The Church's teaching on the intrinsic wrongness of IVF is itself based on secular (though by no means irreligious) ethical perspectives, in particular the dignity of the human being as a member of the human family. As the Church teaches in Donum Vitae:

"Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children"

and therefore

"[t]he political authority consequently cannot give approval to the calling of human beings into existence through procedures which would expose them to those very grave risks noted previously....As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of his conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."

Monday, 2 June 2008

HFEA meets only “joke standard” in comments on Catholic Church teaching on human life and its decisions on human-animal hybrids

Lisa Jardine, the new head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, recently made some very ill-informed comments on Catholic Church teaching on when human life begins. It augurs badly for the future quality of the HFEA’s decision-making on the fate of human embryos when its principal officer is so poor in doing her homework on a matter so easily researched.

The problem almost certainly does not lie with the intelligence of Lisa Jardine – which is well-evidenced. The problem lies with the very low standard of decision-making expected of the HFEA by the legislators who established it under the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

Under her predecessor, the HFEA published its decisions on two license applications regarding human-animal hybrids and the minutes of those decisions can be found here. (The press release is wrongly dated 2007. It was published on 17th January 2008.)

James L Sherley, MD, PhD, a leading stem cell biologist, has commented that the HFEA meets only a joke standard for granting human-animal embryo licences. Dr Sherley is a senior scientist in Programs in Cancer and Regenerative Biology at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, Watertown, Massachusetts, USA. He visited London recently as a guest of the Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales and participated in a two-hour debate titled Science, Ethics, and Faith: A Conversation About the HFE Bill sponsored by the Wellcome Trust on Friday May 16.

Dr Sherley writes: "The standard upon which the HFEA can license human embryo research is quite disingenuous. The HFEA proceedings for these license applications paraphrase the statute that gives the HFEA its licensing authority: as requiring only that the research 'appear to be either necessary or desirable' for the purposes: 2.2.a to increase knowledge about the development of embryos 2.2.b to increase knowledge about serious disease 2.2.c to enable any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease

"'Necessary' can be satisfactorily defined for the purpose of critical and objective evaluation. On the other hand, defining 'desirable' is preposterous. This standard is certainly too subjective for credible application. Yet, it is given equal weight to the 'necessary' standard, because currently meeting either is a sufficient basis for the HFEA to award a license. Certainly, at its very core, this HFEA licensing standard is a mean joke against UK citizens who respect innocent human lives and seek to protect them.

"The 'desirable' standard should be rescinded, because it lacks exactness and is easily abused. Thereafter, the 'necessary' standard requires a reckoning, too. If purposes 2.2.a-2.2.c cannot be accomplished without a given type of research, then that research can appropriately be deemed 'necessary'. Human-animal cloning research does not meet this standard. In a invalid attempt to justify their decision, the HFEA proceedings emphasized the idle promises of cloned human embryo research and completely excluded any assessment of the very real pitfalls of human-animal cloning experiments.

"Putting the human genetic material into animal eggs is certainly not necessary per se to increase knowledge about serious disease. Even suggesting that these experiments will somehow lead to improvements in making cloned human embryonic stem cells with human eggs is unsupportable on scientific grounds. Because of the biological aberrations and incompatibilities of inter-species mixing, human-animal embryo research will produce many misleading artifacts that have nothing to do with human development or human disease. For example, it is well known that when mature human cells are fused with mature rodent cells, the viable hybrid cells spit out most of the human chromosomes. Inter-species cloning experiments will add little or nothing to ongoing experimentation in uncontested animal-animal embryo cloning research (e.g., cloning of mouse embryonic stem cells), which has provided many insights into human development and human disease. In fact the current advances in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are due to research with mouse embryonic stem cells, not human ones. The HFEA position on inter-species cloning also ignores countless examples of non-stem cell research and adult stem cell research that continue to increase knowledge about serious disease.

"So, it is truly a wonder that the petitioning knowledgeable scientists actually want to undertake this unsound research. What is really motivating them? Perhaps, the answer lies in the following statement found in the public transcript of the HFEA evaluation proceedings (November 28, 2007) for the license application of Dr. Stephen Minger of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases, Kings College London: '[Dr. Minger] acknowledges that further equipment and staff will be needed pending approval of the application and subsequent funding decisions.' So, here it is again, just in a different guise: Innocent human lives created and destroyed for the benefit of others, but this time for others who have few redeeming qualities, if indeed any at all."