Dr Hugh Montefiore, retired bishop of Birmingham who is a former chairman of the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility, said he was opposed to abortion, except in cases where the mother's life was endangered or the child would be grossly malformed. 'But the life of a human being is more important than the life of a potential human being. It is abhorrent and distasteful to use tissue in this way, but then I think it is even more distasteful just to sluice it away.'
Theologians and philosophers were deeply divided yesterday about two issues raised by the use of foetal tissue. The first was whether it was right to distinguish between ordinary tissue and sex cells, or gametes, which were capable of themselves transmitting life. This distinction was rejected by Dr Montefiore. The second argument was whether it was right to distinguish between foetal tissue obtained after an abortion, and similar tissue obtained from a still birth or a miscarriage.
However, Dr Montefiore was not expressing the Church of England's policy. That was put by Dr John Polkinghorne, a member of the General Synod, who also chaired the committee which produced the Department of Health's guidelines into the use of foetal tissue.
Dr Polkinghorne, president of Queens' College, Cambridge, said he could not support Dr Montefiore's enthusiasm for the use of eggs from embryos in fertility treatments. 'I think one has to consider means as well as ends. One has to consider how you got the tissue and then there are two fundamentals.
'One is the fact that you would be creating a person whose mother had never had a real existence, and that could be very damaging psychologically. The second is a question of consent. It seems to me that the use of genetic material is so sensitive that there must be informed and counselled consent. But the code of practice which my committee produced five years ago has as its keystone a complete separation between abortion and subsequent possible use of tissue. So specific consent to the genetic use of the material could not be given.'
Dr Polkinghorne's distinctions were supported by the Roman Catholic expert on medical ethics, Professor John Marshall. He is opposed to all abortion, but he says this should not be allowed to blur the question of how tissue may be used if it has been legitimately obtained, from a miscarriage or a still birth. 'Take for instance someone who gives birth to twins and one of them is stillborn,' he said.
'Would it be right to use the gametes from that? I have no problem with the use of legitimately obtained foetal tissue when it is not a gamete. Montefiore is right in the sense that that tissue will only exist in its own lifetime, and, rather than that tissue going to waste, then we should use it. But I think family must matter, otherwise there wouldn't be all this hoo-haa about people going back to their roots, and adopted children wanting to know who their real parents were.'
The Rev Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, was opposed to any use of tissue from aborted foetuses. 'I think the use of donor facilities and donor parts in the reproductive process is wrong. Dr Montefiore's statement is outside that which the general public will find acceptable. These proposals mean, it seems to me, that we are using a foetus as an it rather than as a him or a her.'
Ronald Dworkin, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University, argues that not using the potential for life offered by aborted foetuses would be the truly distasteful factor. He believes moral confusion over the use of foetal eggs, like that over abortion, rests on the erroneous assumption that foetuses have rights and interests.
David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science at King's College, London, felt there was a fundamental difference between using foetal tissue and foetal eggs. He said unease over the issue accentuated the general dilemma over egg donation generally, whether from live women or aborted foetuses.