[Paleopsych] The Tablet (UK): John Haldane: More Ethics, Less Emotion

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More Ethics, Less Emotion

    A national bioethics committee is the only way forward now that the
    vital moral issues of abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and
    gender selection are taking centre stage on the public and political

    Holy week in Britain is traditionally a time for setting aside the
    business of the world. Christians prepare to commemorate the final
    journey of Jesus to Calvary and then to celebrate his Resurrection;
    Parliament goes into recess; and the nation relaxes into a long
    holiday weekend.

    With a general election in prospect, this year was bound to be
    different. In anticipation of a vote being called for 5 May,
    politicians have been clearing their desks in preparation for
    contributing to a polling campaign that began some while ago. And
    because there is the possibility of a change of government, or at
    least a reconfiguration of forces, others with policies to pursue, or
    interests to protect, have also been active in seeking attention for
    their causes.

    The real peculiarity of this Easter, however, was the striking
    interweaving of religious reflection, policy debate, and political
    manoeuvring. On Maundy Thursday the House of Commons Science and
    Technology Committee published a report on reproductive technologies,
    reviewing the operation of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act
    and of the HFE Authority established to regulate and advise on policy.
    The report adopted a users perspective on the issues, and a
    libertarian approach to reproductive rights. For example,
    would-be-parents should be free to avail themselves of sex-selection
    and other genetic services. Presupposed to this was a view of human
    life that the report endorsed, namely, that in its earliest stages it
    is of limited value and may be used in experimentation and for
    purposes of reproductive enhancement.

    For the authors, taboo subjects must be tackled head on; as well as
    sex-selection these include reproductive cloning, and the blending of
    human and animal cells. The general view of the committee chairman,
    Ian Gibson, was captured in his remark: As long as people are doing it
    for the right reasons, what is wrong? But in place of the hoped-for
    answer, Nothing, the report was met with a hail of criticism. Indeed,
    the criticism began before the report was even issued, for half the
    committee took exception and refused to be associated with it.
    Dissenting members issued a statement of opposition expressing the
    view that the report is unbalanced, light on ethics, goes too far in
    the direction of deregulation and is too dismissive of public opinion.

    Maundy Thursday also saw the House of Lords ending its discussion of
    the Mental Capacity Bill, with the contested provisions for ending
    life. In the world beyond Westminster others were debating the
    withdrawal of food and water from Terri Schiavo; disputing whether it
    was a cessation of fruitless treatment or of essential care, and
    whether it was letting die or euthanasia. Multitudes seemed to be
    aligning themselves on various sides while in the Lords only a few
    managed to remain to the end of day.

    Not far away, however, Cardinal Murphy-OConnor of Westminster resumed
    his querying of public policy (begun some weeks before when he called
    for voters to consider the views of politicians upon abortion) by
    criticising the proposals of the Science and Technology Report and
    calling for the establishment of a UK national bioethics committee.
    Little reported, however, was the fact that on the same day the Chief
    Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, also issued a statement critical of the report,
    in which he said that the issues raised by pre-selection of embryos
    constitute a strong reason for establishing a national bioethics
    committee, including representation from Britains faith groups.

    Since then, the press has been focused on the question of whether
    ethical issues, promoted by religious believers, are likely to play a
    significant part in the forthcoming election. My own estimate is that,
    given the fires that will burn around the issues of taxation and
    public spending, they are unlikely to do so in the timeframe of the
    election itself. But something has changed. The decline of John Paul
    II and the demise of Terri Schiavo, the images of early foetuses in
    the womb and the horrors of late abortion, the suggestion of ever more
    radical experimentation and the strength of reaction to it, the
    advances of science and the complexity of moral philosophy; all
    contribute to a mood of dissatisfaction with the present manner of
    dealing with issues of life and death.

    There is a felt need for something better than confused and conflicted
    parliamentary discussions, in-group agenda advancing, extremist
    issue-grabbing, and uncooperative denunciation from those for whom
    nothing is better than something-less-than-everything.

    Members of the HFEA and similar groupings are unsure what to make of
    the call for a national bioethics committee. Such doubts are far from
    the mind of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which,
    on the very same day as the cardinals call for such a committee,
    issued a statement of opposition to it: SPUC strongly opposes [the
    cardinals] call to the government and parliament to set up a national
    bioethics commission [such a] commission will prove to be the
    graveyard of pro-life ethical concerns We need to ensure that the
    House of Commons reflects the publics concern that the sanctity of
    life be respected If lethal experiments were being carried out on
    Anglicans, Catholics and Jews, would it be appropriate for religious
    leaders to call for a commission to discuss the matter?

    This response is multiply confused. First, it overlooks the fact that
    the cardinal and others, including pro-life groups, have been
    effective in getting their concerns into public consciousness. Most
    successful in this regard is CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics)
    whose director, Josephine Quintavalle, who was among the first to call
    for a national bioethics committee. Second, why be so pessimistic
    about the possibility of progress at the level of a statutorily
    appointed committee answerable to Parliament, while being hopeful
    about the possibility of ensuring that the Commons be pro-life? Third,
    while Parliamentarians have much to distract their attention and to
    pull at their affiliations, a bioethics committee might be better able
    to see things in an impartial light and its membership might be more
    easily subject to Parliamentary scrutiny reflective of the publics
    general concerns. Fourth, the analogy is misconceived: efforts to see
    policy put on a better ethical foundation are not sectarian but

    The idea of a bioethics committee as I conceive it (and I am already
    on record as having called for the establishment of one) owes
    something to the example of other countries. In Europe and North
    America there are such bodies, bringing together scientific
    researchers, medical practitioners, philosophers, social scientists
    and others. Precisely because these reflect broad lines of division
    within society they struggle to arrive at agreed conclusions. That is
    not discreditable or fruitless, for it is better to register the
    difficulties than to ignore or deny them.

    The fact of the matter is that as things stand much thinking about
    moral questions in the public sphere is confused, confusing and
    increasingly devoid of deep content. We need first to recognise a
    number of distinctions, but also to avoid confusing them. There is the
    private and there is the public; then there is the procedural, the
    political, the cultural and the moral. Some issues can and should be
    treated as purely procedural matters, and others are properly private.
    But issues concerning the beginnings and endings of life its creation,
    maintenance and destruction belong to the sphere of public morality
    and cannot be resolved by fair procedures alone.

    We need to establish a public means of thinking seriously, openly, and
    respectfully of common opinion, about such matters. The HFEA and
    parliamentary committees have proved inadequate to the task, showing
    themselves to be at odds with public thinking. These failings have
    contributed to the current situation in which the defence of life has
    been taken up and responded to by others. It is time to establish a
    National Bioethics Committee whose membership would be required to
    reflect the true range and proportion of opinion in society. It would
    be apt and helpful to ask politicians ahead of the election whether
    they would support the creation of such a body. I expect the answers
    would be positive.

                           [8]More by John Haldane
                        [11]Heythrop College - London


    8. http://www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi-bin/register.cgi/go/archive_index.cgi/tablet-author-John_Haldane
   11. http://www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi-bin/click.cgi?banner=003

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