Bioethics and the Lessons of History

Two recent events have highlighted the importance of clear ethical thinking on the issues of the day, and how we can learn from those who have gone before us. The first is the announcement of yet another clone and kill bill, this time in Victoria.

Health Minister Bronwyn Pike has just introduced the bill which will be debated in Parliament, perhaps in April. Already the spin doctors are out in force, making inaccurate and misleading claims about the bill.

They are claiming, for example, that therapeutic cloning will be allowed but not reproductive cloning. This is simply deceptive doublespeak. The clones produced will be reproductive clones: a new and genetically unique member of the human race created by the process in question. So reproductive cloning will in fact take place. But instead of allowing this new embryo to grow and develop normally, it will be killed at around day eight in the stem cell extraction process.

This is certainly not “therapeutic” for the young human embryo, whose life will be cut short. So this ‘distinction’ is just a case of verbal engineering, preparing us for Big Biotech social engineering. This bill is all about creating human life only to destroy it for research purposes.

The second event is the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, and the role played by William Wilberforce. To help commemorate the event, a new film, Amazing Grace, has just come out, detailing the story of Wilberforce and the fight against slavery.

So what is the connection between these two events? It is this: just as Wilberforce, motivated by his Christian faith, had to work for decades to convince others of the humanity of black people, and the immorality of slavery, so too today believers (and non-believers) are seeking to convince others that unborn babies – however conceived – are also members of the human race, and that abortion, destructive embryo research, and other similar procedures, are in fact immoral and unethical.

C. Ben Mitchell of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Chicago has recently taken up this connection between slavery and the life issues (“William Wilberforce & Bioethics,” March 9, 2007). He begins with a discussion of the new film: “Ioan Gruffudd plays a convincing and youthful Wilberforce caught in the tension of his desire to serve the God who recently found him and his passion to see the slave trade in England halted. Should he devote himself wholly to God or should he continue to invest himself in Archimedean task of parliamentary reform? His answer comes through the counsel of a friend who affirms: ‘you can be both a Christian and an activist.’ John Newton, Wilberforce’s boyhood pastor, mentor, and the author of the hymn Amazing Grace is played brilliantly by Albert Finney who reminds us in his portrayal that Newton was not a genteel Anglican minister, but was, in his own words, a converted ‘rude, profane, slave-trading sailor’ whose conscience was wracked by the horrific images of the human beings he himself maltreated.”

Mitchell provides some historical background: “Among Wilberforce’s other associates were Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, Edward Eliot, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton, and clergyman John Venn. Together they composed what was known as the Clapham Sect or, better, the Clapham Circle, named for the area of London where they lived at the time. Ending with the victory to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain in 1807, the movie leaves out much of the proverbial rest of the story. Not only was this little group of men and women responsible, under God, for abolishing the slave trade in England, they helped to reform child labor laws, established the Founding Hospital, built a hostel for former prostitutes complete with job training, promoted the vaccination of children, established a missionary society, a society for bettering the condition of the poor, and on and on. They were holistic in their efforts to protect their fellow humans from the assaults of an avaricious culture.”

He then shows the similarities between the battle over slavery and the modern bioethics battles. “First, the presenting issue was the same as in our current bioethics debates: human dignity. Slavery treated human beings, members of our species, as commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Wilberforce and company repudiated the instrumentalism of the slave trade, maintaining that human beings ought not be treated like chattel. Similarly, the violation of human subjects in research – whether in Weimar Germany or Tuskegee, Alabama – is an affront to the dignity of those whose lives are harmed. And the abuse of members of our own species for research that results in their destruction – as in embryonic stem cell research – treats human beings instrumentally, as means to someone else’s ends. The dignity of the human family demands that we protect the dignity of each of its members.”

“Second, economics and power of place fuelled the slave trade. For two decades members of parliament argued that Britain’s fortunes rested on the economic gains made possible through the slave trade. Today, the rhetoric is similar. Big biotech lobbies lawmakers in state after state to pass legislation that will provide government funding for embryo-destructive research and embryo cloning. ‘If we don’t,’ they maintain, ‘we will lose market share.’ ‘If we don’t,’ they lament, ‘the United States will lose it’s place at the leading edge of R&D.’ Never mind that the path to this development leads inexorably to the willful commodification and destruction of human embryos, those most vulnerable members of our species.”

Such crass commercial and financial concerns are exactly the sorts of things we have heard recently from Victorian Premier Steve Bracks. He worries that if Victoria does not lead the way, it will lose out, and other states will cash in. Moral of the story? Money counts; people do not.

And there is another lesson that we need to keep in mind:  “Finally, the slave trade did not come to an end over night. In fact, despite chronic illness, Wilberforce labored tirelessly for twenty years to abolish trade in human slaves in Britain in 1807 and another fifteen years to abolish slavery in the British colonies – a victory he won just three days before his death in 1833. The lesson is that the protection of human dignity against economic, technological, and political interests requires persevering vigilance. We must see this as a vocation, not an occasional skirmish.”

Exactly right. As I have argued elsewhere, the battle for life that we are involved in may go on for many years, perhaps many decades, or more. Yet we must not give up, but persevere. Just as today blacks all over the globe are grateful that people of principle and conviction stood up for them two centuries ago, one day there will be many who will thank us for standing up for the unborn.

Just as we now look back at the barbarism of slavery, perhaps one day soon, we will also look back and say, ‘how could they ever have allowed such horrible practices like abortion to take place?’ Perhaps in the near future the destruction of the unborn and the exploitation of the weak by the strong will be seen as grizzly practices of an earlier, less civilised era.

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6 Replies to “Bioethics and the Lessons of History”

  1. Such utter nonsense!!!
    When scientists state “therapeutic cloning will be allowed but NOT reproductive cloning” it’s a straight forward statement of fact! Those embryos will NOT be placed in a woman to go to term and produce a “person”.
    These embryonic cells will be grown in a petri dish, allowed to multiply, and be used to treat patients with any number of diseases and injuries. It may in fact allow the human race to live much longer, just as your bible says man used to live. [However, my guess is this letter will not get past your censorship]
    Wayne Gill

  2. Thanks Wayne

    But reproduction has already occurred. Nothing changes after that point, just the development and growth of a human being. Whether it is allowed to develop, or be cannibalized for spare parts at an earlier stage, is immaterial. So it is already a person, by virtue of the fact that it is a member of the human race. Thus whether it is killed at 8 days, 8 months, as a newborn infant, or as an unwanted patient in an old folk’s home, it is sill killing.

    And to date, not one human therapy has come via embryonic stem cell research. All the success stories thus far come from adult stem cells. So why are you beating a dead horse here? If you are really concerned about helping other people, you should be fully supportive of adult stem cell research.

    And the facts and science of stem cell research just mentioned are not tied to anyone’s view of the Bible. The science stands on its own here.

    As to allowing the human race to live longer, that is not something that seems like an obvious good in itself. Helping people to live better, more ethical, and more virtuous lives seems much more important. If allowing people to live longer simply means we continue to treat some members of the human race as mere fodder for scientific research, for the pharmaceutical industry, and so on, then I for one see no value in it.

    It makes a big difference whether we see an Adolf Hitler live to be 200 years old, or a Mother Teresa.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Great article, Bill. If only we had a Wilberforce in the State – or even Federal Parliament! The (hypothetical) clone is an absolute orphan: no mother or father, no brothers or sisters, no prospect of ever having children. Manufactured not to receive life and love, but to be tortured as a laboratory rat then killed. The notion of cloning human beings is so evil – not to mention such fantastic science fiction – it makes me think our society is truly in its death throes. My hope and belief is that no one will ever be able to produce a human clone. As for claims that cloning will somehow lead to cures; when there haven’t even been trials on animal clones; all I can say is that people are stupid enough to believe anything, just as that Master Eugenicist Hitler said.
    Maryse Usher, Melbourne

  4. Wayne Gill ended his comment with “your Bible”, but the Bible is for everyone who is willing to recieve it. The fact that these people will have no parents, siblings or even extended family, but will just be an experimental lab rat is quite true, and is an uncompassionate act.
    Fivos Panayiotou

  5. Dear Bill,

    I have just come across your site. Congrats on your clear thinking even if many, such as Wayne above, cannot come to terms with the fact that life is a continuum from conception until death intervenes either through natural causes or human intervention.

    With therapeutic cloning human life is treated as a commodity there is no other honest explanation. Regrettably probably the majority of both political parties refuse to see it for what it is.

    As member of a family in which alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease is prevalent I certainly look for hopeful cures, but it cannot be at any price.

    The Nuremburg Trials was the classic case in which the prosecution argued the point that ‘the end does not justify the means’ and that ‘following orders’ was not justification for extreme inhuman acts against fellow human beings.

    I have been a human rights activist for many decades and have welcomed many improvements in many areas of human rights, but therapeutic cloning is turning the clock back to darker practices.

    John Launder

  6. Quoth Wayne Gill:
    “…It may in fact allow the human race to live much longer, just as your bible says man used to live. [However, my guess is this letter will not get past your censorship]”

    Wayne, you have included there a couple of assumptions which invalidate your argument.

    First, because it appears in the Bible, you assume that it is to be sought as if it were worthwhile.

    But you have not considered what followed the age of longevity, and that eternal life is not granted this side of Jesus’ Return.

    Second, the expression “your bible” indicates that you assume the Bible to be authoritative over Bill (and presumably others) but not over yourself.

    If you believe that the Bible is to be applied to Bill, then you open yourself to the charge of hypocrisy: “do as I say, not as I do” because you assume that it *is* authoritative, just not for you.

    And as a ps: assuming that your challenge would be “censored” isn’t helpful for intelligent discussion.

    The question of Censorship is not answered with “Yes” or “No” but with “According to what rules?” and those rules are on the site.

    John Angelico

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