It is time we talked about the embryo. Calmly, seriously, rationally.
Last week it emerged that scientists at Oregon Health and Science University had successfully modified human embryos to remove genetic mutations that cause heart failure in otherwise healthy young people.
Paula Amato, a fertility specialist involved in the study, said: "This embryo gene correction method, if proven safe, can potentially be used to prevent transmission of genetic disease to future generations."
Many welcomed the hugely significant implications such “editing” of human genomes can have for the avoidance of genetically inherited conditions, also including cystic fibrosis and some breast cancers. Others demurred. “What about the embryo?” they asked.
The Oregan study was a "game-changer" in scientific and ethical terms, said Dr Aisling de Paor, law lecturer in Dublin City University. It was one step closer to an era of "designer babies" she said. "It opens the door to tailoring the genetic make-up of our children. It also facilitates the selection of hair or eye colour, sporting ability or behavioural traits."
She continued: "It is no longer in the realm of science fiction to imagine a Gattaca-type society focused on genetic cleansing. We need to be worried about the possibility of this new age of eugenics."
So, seeming to ignore the positives, she felt the Oregon study could signal a reinvigoration of eugenic-type ideas discredited since the Nazi era. Quite a leap. She did not stop there.
There was, she said, with these new developments, an “ethical concern that technology will be used to screen out disability in society. This is extremely worrying from a human rights perspective, and in relation to the current and future rights of people with disabilities,” she said.
Really? Surely people suffering as a result of genetic disability, not to mention their parents, would be among the first to welcome the possible elimination of such conditions.
Behind such legal/ethical thinking is an overly precious argument against interference with the natural processes of the body, an argument long lost to the great benefit of humanity.
And so we have surgery (which could be equated with genome “editing”), antibiotics, vaccinations, etc, all “inteferences” with the overt intent of sustaining the right to life in living, breathing, returned-to-health human beings.
Bishop Kevin Doran was even more unhappy with the Oregon study. Chair of the Catholic Bishops' Consultative Group on Bioethics and Life Questions, he objected, full stop, to the use of embryos in such research, regardless of the outcome. They (embryos) were being "deprived of any other purpose than to be used for research and then disposed of", he said.
“These individual human beings are all the more entitled to protection precisely because they do not yet have the capacity to speak for themselves or to give their consent,” he said.
It is simply wrong to describe a fertilised ovum as a human being. A fertilised ovum is not a human being,it is a biological reaction. It has no head, no heart, no spine, no consciousness. It is a collection of biological elements which is no more a human being than my leg, my arm, any of my organs, even my toe nails.
It may someday become a human being, but it is not a human being.
A sperm is not a human being, an ovum is not a human being. Together they do not make up a human being. They become an embryo with a very risky future. Studies indicate that up to 50 per cent of embryos are lost before implantation, and of the remainder up to 20 per cent are lost in miscarriages.
In other words as many as 70 per cent of embryos may never make it.
This raises an obvious question. Why is such massive annual loss of millions of human beings throughout the world not marked anywhere in religious or secular ceremony?
If secular and religious authorities really, seriously believe the embryo has such unique moral status, why is such regular "disposal" of so many ritually ignored? Indeed it is not so long ago in Ireland, as elsewhere, that miscarriages were disposed of as waste.
And it is not correct for Bishop Doran to state it has been "the consistent belief of the church" that a human embryo has the dignity proper to a person. It has been the belief of the Catholic Church only since 1869, or for the past 148 years.
Up to then the Catholic Church did not believe removal of the foetus was homicide if it took place before quickening – when the child began to move in the womb. This quickening, for theologians down through the centuries, was evidence of an independent being within its mother’s body and that was when they deemed it had aquired a soul and became a human being.
Up to then it did not have a soul and so was not a person. It was a foetus.
In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV determined quickening took place at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks – coincidentally the current legal limit on abortion in the UK.
To spell it out, removal of the foetus before then was not considered homicide in church teaching because you were not dealing with a human being but with a foetus without a soul. That, more or less, was the church position for 1,869 years and with a grounding that makes so much more sense than that of the past 148 years which merely asserts as belief that an embryo is a human being. Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent