Free Choice, Religious Conviction and Political Leadership

March 24, 2008

knowledge-and-biodiversity.jpg
Our political leaders have to confront dilemmas of a kind that have defeated the greatest minds since the dawn of civilization. In the UK, a case in point is The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill

Over Easter there have been signs of a coordinated campaign by Catholic Church leaders in the United Kingdom.

The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh released the text of his Good Sunday sermon in advance (in order to reach the media more effectively).

..[T]he possibility now facing our country is that animal-human embryos be produced with the excuse that perhaps certain diseases might find a cure from these resulting embryos.
What I am speaking of is the process whereby scientists create an embryo containing a mixture of animal and human genetic material.

If I were preaching this homily in France, Germany, Italy, Canada or Australia I would be commending the government for rightly banning such grotesque procedures. However here in Great Britain I am forced to condemn our government for not only permitting but encouraging such hideous practices.
…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. With full might of government endorsement, Gordon Brown is promoting a bill that will allow the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.

Further it seems that Labour MPs are not to be allowed a free vote on this bill and consequently are denied the right to vote according to their conscience – a right which all other political parties have allowed.

Action and Reaction

The Government Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw, reacted swiftly to the Bishop’s broadside, telling the BBC:

“If it was about the things the cardinal referred to, creating babies for spare parts or raiding dead people’s tissue, then there would be justification for a free vote ..but it’s not about those things. He was wrong in fact, and I think rather intemperate and emotive in the way that he criticised this legislation.

This is about using pre-embryonic cells to do research that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions of people in this country. The government has taken a view that this is a good thing.”

Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders plan to allow their MPs to have a free vote on the more controversial aspects of the bill. The BBC indicated that no decision had yet been made by the Government concerning the possibility of a free vote for its members.

Such a Moral Maze

Such a moral maze. Or is it? In the UK we have become accustomed to very serious and disputatious people demonstrating how to turn an issue into a moral maze. Or fog.
According to philosopher Jamie Whyte such debates are often crimes against logic. Whyte is a refreshingly uncomplicated philosopher, whose case against the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders is worth remembering.

[Thanks to blogger Tom Kyte for reminding me about Whyte]

Whyte suggests that there are bad arguments out there, often offered in the noblest causes of democracy, morality, economic well-being, health, welfare, and the environment.

Crimes against logic?

The debate has already assumed the rhetorical heights (or do I mean lows) of The Moral Mazers. But can it really be about the principle of a free vote? Or might it be that a free vote is less a moral principle to be defended, than a pragmatic bit of special pleading?

Almost all commentators seem to be reporting without access to direct documentation of the bill. As I understand it, the primary issue concerns clarification of new methods of generating stem-cells for medical purposes.

The methodology involves taking human tissue material in much the same way as is already done for DNA analysis. The samples can be obtained from skin scrapings or hair. Any connection with the creation of human embryos is by a strech of the imagination. The logic if not criminal then a bit of a misdemeanor.

The inference is that the scientists are engaged in creating embryos by a version of artificial insemination attempting to penetrate an egg of a non-human species by sperm from a human male. In the process, the human tissue is developed within a protective overcoat from a non-human source.

The relevant authority has to work with its institutional label, the human fertilization and embryology authority. That must have seemed such a logically neutral and scientific label once upon a time. However, the distinguished commission describes the proposed experiments in terms of ‘pre-embryonic’ entities.

This is where vocabulary can be so difficult. What does pre-embryonic mean? To the arch-bishop it means an entity that has the potential to become a human embryo, and (according to his beliefs) deserving of the same rights as other human embryos.

The defensive argument

A great deal has been written about how a dominant belief forces opponents to use the dominant language. There is no level linguistic battle field. This particular skirmish seems to be found in the vocabulary of the secularist forces. Furthermore, the debate clearly influences the sort of research which becomes sanctioned.

For example, medical researchers have to devote time and effort to demonstrate as far as possible their work does not offend beliefs about how ‘living’ cells are to be treated.

Leadership Issues

There are complex and important leadership issues at play. The debate is already finding its way in to the upcoming American Presidential election. President Bush recently announced a veto on legislation that would permit stem-cell research. The vocabulary of this debate is similar to that found within the current UK debate. As it turns out, Republican and Democratic front-runners are appear to be against a blanket prohibition of stem-cell research.

The religious statements can be studied as examples of how leaders seek to influence others by offering a visionary view of right and wrong (or how right and wrong is being revealed to us through our spiritual leaders). In absence of conviction politicians, the democratic process is more about deals, compromises and trade-offs.

Update:

A thorough timeline on stem-cell research can be found in a post I unearthed after writing the above.