Dame Mary Warnock has written an essay which was published in the November 29, 2007 issue of Nature, which appears to be an apologetic for her part in the establishment of the ethics of embryonic research in the United Kingdom. The bloggers at Women’s Bioethics Project speculate that she wrote in anticipation of Parliament’s review of the Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority.
The full essay is for subscribers only – but there’s a 2006 article that describes the wider function of the committee, here.
What Warnock explains (but doesn’t acknowledge) is that her committee did exactly what they accused the Catholics of doing: “answering in advance the very question we were asking.”
The task was to justify embryo experimentation, posed to the Committee after it was proven that the embryonic Louise Brown was the born Louise Brown. They did the job they believed that they were assigned, and then projected their own act of “answering in advance” upon anyone who drew a connection between the moral worth of the embryonic Louise Brown and the born Louise Brown.
Ironically, Dame Warnock admits to no expertise in morality yet feels justified in rejecting the moral expertise of the Catholic Church simply because it is the Church. All the while complaining about the difficulty of pleading the case that the issue is one of morals.
I wonder whether we could get murder and rape prohibited by this committee.
From the Nature essay (emphasis is mine):
When in 1978 the first baby was born by in vitro fertilization (IVF) it was inevitable that there would be calls for the procedure to be prohibited. That science develops too fast for morality had become the cliché of the twentieth century. Wisely, the UK government decided to set up a committee from which to seek advice before legislating on such a complex and emotive issue.
The Committee of Enquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology was founded to examine the social and ethical implications of the new techniques. Therefore the committee could not be made up entirely of physicians and scientists. With some difficulty, 16 people — including me as the chair — were gathered to look at the problem from all angles. Our areas of expertise included social work, law and theology.
We were not a group of ‘moral experts’, with particular moral authority derived from our expertise. Rather, our entitlement to propose legislation derived from the fact that we had been set up by government and that we had been given the time and resources to do so. The only other requirement was that we should all be capable of formulating and listening to arguments.
The central and most controversial issue before us was whether or not research using live embryos should be permitted. There was little possibility of a moral consensus. If research were prohibited, IVF could not continue. It would have been too risky for patients.
When legislation seemed imminent in Britain, the Catholic Church published an instruction condemning IVF and research using human embryos. The Church stated that its instruction was based on “the criteria of moral judgement as regards the application of scientific research and technology, especially in relation to human life and its beginnings”.
The Church claimed a right to regulate science in this area, because of its superior knowledge of morality. In sharp contrast, the committee’s entitlement to issue moral advice to ministers derived from its having been set up to do so, and from its having a wide and non-partisan membership.
Prohibition of IVF did not seem to the majority of the committee to be a serious option, given its widespread welcome as an innovative remedy for infertility. We all regarded infertility as a serious malfunction, causing much distress. Instead, we proposed a strict system of licensing, backed up by the criminal law. Regulation was not a mere sop to science-phobia. There was a real danger that women, desperate to conceive, might be exploited, taken in by unrealistic promises and charged extortionate fees for futile or dangerous treatment.
Establishing what limits should be placed on embryonic research entailed a decision by the committee as to the moral and legal status of the live human embryo in vitro. Those who opposed the use of embryos in research could seek to demonstrate that it was morally wrong only by answering in advance the very question we were asking. They deemed that the embryo had the same moral status as any human being.
One of the most difficult tasks the committee faced was to get parliament to understand that the status of the embryo in vitro was a matter not of science but of moral decision. The novelty of the embryo in vitro meant that there could be no appeal to precedent or existing moral convention or to religious laws.
30 years later, the evolution of the HFEA regulations – through one mutation followed by another due to pressure to expand the limits of research – allow preimplantation genetic diagnosis, selection for “savior siblings” and against low risk genes, cloning and (most recently) licensing the use of non-human oocytes and human DNA for cloning experimentation.
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