When does life begin?

These Saturday posts are looking at past Briefing articles on ethics, infertility and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in anticipation of the subject of the next issue of The Briefing. First, we grappled with Michael Hill’s question of how much (and whether) humans should meddle with God’s creation. Then Kirsten Birkett showed us what happens when science and technology, ethics and morality, and human rights rub up against one another. This week, Andrew Cameron deconstructs some of the rhetoric surrounding the 2002 debate in Australia about when life begins:

We have recently witnessed the interesting spectacle of someone trying to justify a moral position purely on the basis of science, without reference to ethics or religion. Finding ‘viability’ to be a dubious basis for defining human life, Kristina Kerscher Keneally attempts a moral critique of embryonic stem-cell research, but without standing on traditional moral platforms:

Proponents of stem cell research on embryos often accuse critics of relying on religion and ethics to answer the question. What if we look to science?

The human species is scientifically identified by its DNA, and each human is characterised by a unique DNA code. An embryo, like any collection of human cells, contains DNA. But an embryo’s DNA is a new genetic code. It has never been seen before and will not be seen again. The new DNA code found in an embryo signifies the beginning of a new human existence. It is complete and equal to any adult. Scientifically speaking, an embryo and an adult are exactly the same—each a distinct human being.

… [W]e must resist the temptation to destroy human life even in the hope of saving it. If we don’t, our efforts may backfire, and we may end up destroying ourselves.

(The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday March 27th 2002 p. 15)

Has Keneally succeeded in establishing the preciousness of the embryo? Yes. But in doing so, has she relied solely upon science? Certainly not.

Even more interesting is another recent spectacle, enacted in this case by the premier bishop among Australian Anglicans. The Primate, Peter Carnley, has also attempted to justify a moral evaluation of early embryonic life entirely in reference to science, also without any substantive reference to religion. (See http://www.anglican.org.au/docs/SICloningCarnley.pdf)

In this case, the attempt is a failure, for as we shall see, the argument is not so much a moral argument as a moral assertion. Moreover, it is a kind of assertion which illustrates the peril of thinking that science can act as some independent ground upon which competing moralists might meet. Science can be coopted in ways distinctly unsuited to it.

At the outset, Carnley points to a new question or questions: “Since the widespread application of human reproductive technologies in the early 1980’s moral debate has been dominated by some interrelated questions relating to the origin of life, such as ‘When exactly does life begin?’ or ‘At what point is an embryo to be accorded the status of an individual human being, with rights to care, protection and, indeed, life?’”

We should pause with him at the outset and ask—why? That is, what made it necessary for these questions only to emerge in response to the application of these technologies? Carnley gives the obvious answer: “because of the destruction of some fertilized ova in the process of medically assisted reproduction procedures”.

But we might equally frame situation as follows. Because human embryos were being killed, it became apposite to cast doubt over the commencement time of human life, using the form of questioning which Carnley recounts. Prior to this kind of killing, there was never any such question. It only occurred to us to cast doubt upon the moral status of embryos once the killing had begun.

The Primate recounts a parallel situation. In discussing the concept of risk, he observes how “the first use of the atomic bomb raised the question ‘Should we ever have made it?’”.

There was, of course, an alternative order of events that we can imagine. Imagine that human beings considered the theoretical possibility of the bomb, agreed together that such a thing should never be made, and left it at that.

Sadly of course, humans are incapable of acting out an alternative such as this. This propensity of human beings to act first and ask questions later is one of the most frustrating aspects of moral discourse for ‘conservatives’, who do not believe that every next step constitutes ‘progress’. For everywhere they are told that such-and-such advance is ‘inevitable’. And once the ‘inevitable’ transpires, everywhere conservatives become embroiled in picking up the pieces, as brows are furrowed and we all take counsel together on how to ‘live with’ this ‘inevitable’ development. So quick is this process that the conservative counter-suggestion is never heard: were humanity willing to wait, its profound ingenuity might discover morally tenable ways to end wars or assist infertility—or, as in the case of stem cell research, to cure terrible maladies.

(Read the full article online.)

One thought on “When does life begin?

  1. Andrew Cameron’s article referrs to an opinion piece by a Kristina Kerscher Keneally. Is this the same Kristina Keneally who is now Premier of NSW? And if yes, does she still hold the views outlined in the article?

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