Podium: An unhealthy obsession with sex

Cardinal Hume From a speech by the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales to a Life conference
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WE NEED a society that: first, protects and promotes marriage and the family; second, ceases to be so obsessed with sex, curbs pornography and puts sexual intimacy back into its proper place in marriage; and third, respects human life from conception to its natural end and thus abolishes abortion.

The idea of marriage as a permanent lifelong commitment is often regarded as unrealistic, and even undesirable because it limits future choices. And the notion of confining sexual relationships to marriage is seen by many as an unattainable fantasy. The link between life and love is broken. It is almost taken for granted that there need be no connection at all between the unitive and the procreative aspects of sexual intimacy.

Our society is faced with competing visions of what makes for human fulfilment and happiness. We have elevated freedom of choice to the seeming exclusion of other values. In the endless obsession with sex in so much of the media we see the peddling of unreal fantasies about what makes for human happiness.

The advancement of the "pro-life" cause regarding abortion is, I believe, not unlike the battle over slavery in the 19th century. There are powerful social, cultural, and economic forces opposing change. Gradually, however, the battle for hearts and minds will be won. And that is because, as with the right of the slave to freedom, the right of the unborn child to life is in the end absolute and unanswerable.

The need to respect human life from its conception to its natural end is an imperative of any civilised society. Besides the question of abortion there is also the real threat of euthanasia.

I want to raise a different issue now, though. It is one that is already rushing towards us. Our society as a whole is ill-prepared to meet it. The Church is ill-prepared to tackle it. We have already seen how the contraceptive mentality has distorted our society's understanding of the purpose and place of sex. In future the impact of genetic technology could have a far more profound and devastating impact on our understanding of the nature of human life itself.

There is no doubt that recent advances in understanding the genetic basis of many diseases hold out the long-term prospect of therapeutic interventions at an early stage, aimed at treating the individual affected. It is said to be some years before such treatment could be a practical reality, but we are continually being surprised by the pace of science and technology.

What is already a reality, however, is the selective abortion of foetuses. There are many stories of women who have felt under pressure to have antenatal tests for Down's syndrome, for instance, and to abort if the test is positive.

Given the astonishing rate at which the Human Genome is being mapped, I understand that it is not long before it will be possible for scientists to detect many more genetic disorders, as well as many genetic predispositions.

If such tests become widely available, and widely used, what will be the consequences? Will not individual parents start to demand the right to choose, perhaps with the wider use of IVF technology, and to discard embryos that do not meet their requirements? It is a profoundly human instinct for parents to want the best for their children, for them to have as great a chance of succeeding in life as possible. But we seem to be on the verge of the possibility of parents choosing what they regard as the best children to have.

What this could unleash is the spectre of eugenics. It is not the state- sponsored kind that has haunted this century, from which we know that human beings are capable of using the latest scientific advances to pursue a state-sponsored eugenic policy of a horrific kind. Rather, what could now emerge is a privatised form of eugenics in which individual parents choose which children to have, and which to abort.

What if such choices are available only to the rich? And if they are available to all, how will those who choose not to abort children suffering from genetic diseases be regarded? Will society be prepared to pay the health care costs if such a child could have been aborted? How will such children see themselves? These are just some of the many questions that arise, quite apart from abortion.

The interest of society as a whole demands that we do all we can to foster a society in which every child is a wanted child, in which family life is protected and supported, in which sexual intimacy is revered as the point at which life and love meet, and in which each and every human life, from the moment of conception, is respected and protected.