Embryo research and gene editing: Time for a line in the sand


An excellent article by Matt Chandler on the Together for the Gospel blog made the point that if we don't speak out for the dignity and sanctity of life, we are just nominally pro-life. Which in his view means you are not truly pro-life.

He makes the case for Christians to be active in standing for the unborn and outlines some helpful ways of doing so. Writing to your elected representative and participating in the democratic process when pro-life issues come before parliament are good ways to turn your beliefs into actions. His timely reminder is all the more urgent when you consider that here in the UK, the sanctity of human life is under threat as never before.

In the UK, the sanctity of human life is under threat as never before.

Last week, scientists urged that the 14 day limit on growing human embryos in a laboratory should be extended. This is just the latest in a series of attempts to push past ethical boundaries in the interests of scientific advance.

We live today in a society where the inherent dignity of human life is increasingly diminished in the eyes of policy makers. For many people, a human embryo is just a collection of cells. No more importance is attached to it. While for some, the 14 day limit that prevents you from growing a human embryo in a laboratory beyond two weeks is a comfort, for me any attempt to grow a human embryo in a petri-dish in labs across the country is ethically, deeply troubling, whether for one, two or 13 days. Science has so far failed to prove that life does not begin at conception. Instead, we know that at conception a new DNA strand is formed, distinct from the mother and father. Evidently, this shows that a person, a real human being is present in the womb. I believe a human embryo, whether or not it's in the womb, is actually a human life.

Thankfully, the 14 day limit itself cannot be extended without legislation or amendments to the existing legislation which at least means there should be some debate on the issue. But the very fact calls are being made that the limit be extended is a reminder of where we now are as a society. Increasingly, moral arguments against scientific advance at the expense of ethical lines in the sand are ignored. For some, the allure and excitement of scientific advance trumps all else. Consider the green light given to scientists in February this year to start editing human genes. The prospect of a society where parents can pay for the genetic characteristics of their children, creating designer babies, is no mere fantasy but could genuinely become a reality.

What is worse is that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) allowed this just a few months after a group of more than 100 leading international scientists signed a letter urging a worldwide halt in human gene editing. The letter made the pointed comment that we cannot be sure where such editing will end up. But despite this noteworthy warning, researchers and scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London were still given the go-ahead. They became the first UK based scientists to be given this permission. Increasingly it seems the desire for scientific acclaim and advancement are the determining factors in how far we push ethical boundaries.

All of this means that Matt Chandler is right. We need to be more than just nominally pro-life. The unborn babies need voices to be raised in their defence. We must also make sure our advocacy for the unborn goes hand in hand with a renewed emphasis on strong pastoral support for mothers who either have gone through an abortion, or are under pressure to do so. CARE's new OPEN ministry is specifically tailored to provide a safe, compassionate space for mothers in the church who have previously had abortions and perhaps feel they cannot speak about it.

The unborn babies need voices to be raised in their defence.

I am not anti-science. But I believe the failure to engage with moral and ethical arguments about the dignity of life means the very sanctity of life itself is becoming increasingly fragile. The more people that are willing to play their role in helping defend the unborn and provide pastoral support for mothers, the better. Don't just be pro-life in theory. Back it up with action by supporting groups who seek to stand up for the dignity of the vulnerable. In this brave new world of rapid scientific advance, bioethics must have some boundaries to stop us doing what we have no right to do. Human beings are not God. We should be very wary of acting as if we are.

Nola Leach is Chief Executive of CARE.