The human self, off the shelf: We are being blinded by science into accepting biological innovations that are immoral

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The Independent Online
IN THE past week eggs from aborted foetuses, 'designer' babies and artificially induced late pregnancy have all been sprung upon us like seasonal gifts of hot issues from a malign media Santa. Suddenly we have to make up our minds about artificially induced elderly pregnancies, black women choosing to have white babies, and the intensity and rationality of our 'yuk' response when confronted with the possibility of unborn mothers.

The clustering of these stories is odd, but individually they are entirely predictable. For a variety of reasons, primarily economic, human biology is taking over from physics as the dominant science. The pace of discovery since the unravelling of the DNA molecule has been breathtaking, and the number of feasible applications is accelerating rapidly. Globally, vast sums of money are at stake. In the next 10 or 20 years our 'yuk' responses are likely to be tested to destruction.

The reaction to these three biology stories has not been impressive. Those with doubts about the Brave New Biological World have tended either to emit variations of the expletive 'yuk' or to miss the point, as did Virginia Bottomley when she questioned the ethics of making a 59-year-old pregnant on the irrelevant grounds of the future care of the children.

Those in favour have been even less impressive. Most banally, they have celebrated an extension in 'choice' - the most corrupted word in the contemporary lexicon - as if giving ourselves more things constituted a moral programme. Or they have resorted to dishonest logic. 'All the time we are adapting to change. That is how we have evolved,' said Professor Brice Pitt, public education director for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, neatly, yet outrageously, implying that whatever scientists decide to do represents a kind of bracing Darwinian pressure on the species. Finally, there has been mandarin abuse of laymen, as when Professor Stuart Campbell, head of obstetrics at King's College Hospital, London, called doubters 'non- medical moralists'.

Both sides insist on variations of the 'each case on its own merits' theme and, as a result, the arguments have become pointlessly and irresolvably over-specific. There is an urgent issue here, but it cannot be understood by wading through rows about the suitability of 59-

year-old mothers, the depth of anguish of the infertile or the desirability of designing one's baby.

The real issue can most clearly be seen in the words used by the apologists for these innovations. Dr Peter Brinsden, of the Bourn Hall Clinic, Cambridge, was asked to comment on the use of eggs from aborted human foetuses for the treatment of infertility. 'If the general public feels ready for it,' he said, 'then I believe we should go ahead. If not, then we will have to delay. I believe it will become acceptable, certainly within the next five years.'

On the same subject, Tim Radford, the Guardian's science writer, commented: 'The problem is that science has once again apparently outpaced society's ability to absorb it.'

Both statements blandly contain a quite appalling assumption. They assume that there is an institution called science that is somehow separate from normal human culture - the 'general public' - and yet which can meaningfully be said to be ahead of that culture in the sense that, in time, we shall all see the wisdom of letting the scientists do what they like. We shall, as it were, 'progress' to a level of civilisation in which we will accept, in this case, the marketing of live human reproductive tissue with or without the consent of the human to which it once belonged.

This assumption is appalling for three reasons. First, the belief that science is, in any worthwhile sense, 'ahead' of the rest of society is nonsensical unless your idea of human history is restricted to the increase of scientific knowledge or you are prepared to believe that scientists are intrinsically superior beings. Second, no sane human being can possibly think it a good thing that we should do anything simply because we can. Third, the assumption itself is appalling, because, wrong-headed and despicable though it may be, it is probably right.

For the truth is that the 'general public' will, in due course, acquiesce in this horror. Ethical committees might slow the process, but not for long. And, by the time we have slumped into post-'yuk' acceptance, the scientific assault on human life will have gone much further. Hundreds of new ethical demands will have surfaced, underwritten with the supercilious assumption that, in time and probably with the help of the super- supercilious Baroness Warnock, we shall all find the scientists' case 'acceptable'.

The research will happen, if not here then elsewhere, and it will be applied. Even if the British or other Europeans decide that this or that service is unethical, wealthier citizens will be able to buy it abroad. I would guess that within the next few decades, most babies of richer families will be 'designed' in one way or another.

Furthermore, biological science is likely to produce the most hugely profitable technologies of the next 20 years. Western companies are unlikely to feel they can afford to have too many qualms - especially when competing with, for example, an entirely qualm-free China whose government has recently announced a brutal eugenic policy in the name of 'improving' the human stock. Finally, the scale of the research is now so vast that unforeseen spin-offs are inevitable. The most ethically uncontentious research can, as a side- effect, produce ethical dynamite.

The line of least resistance when faced with this approaching tidal wave of technology is to embrace it with mindless chatter about a welcome extension of choice, or to celebrate it as another step on the glorious human quest for knowledge. Both of these responses fail to acknowledge the glaringly obvious fact that what we are dealing with here is something fundamentally new. This is not a science that speculates thrillingly, if at times incoherently, about the nature of matter or the history of the cosmos. Nor is it a science that simply aspires, frequently with catastrophic effects, to improve the quality of our external well-being. This is science that is invading the human self.

The sheer newness of this development has not been understood. The rhetoric of science has tended to disguise it as more of the same - more improvements such as microwave ovens or vaccinations. Similarly, the word 'natural' has been used and abused to blur the debate - eggs from aborted foetuses may not be natural, say the apologists, but neither are antibiotics or economic policy. This trick again tends to emphasise that what we are getting is more, not different, science.

The effect of this and of the inevitable feeling of technological fatalism is to marginalise the ethical debate, to reduce it to the level of making new deals with the same old science. It is no longer an ethical debate at all, but a negotiation. Baroness Warnock is the intellectual godmother of this state of affairs. Her committee style is, in effect, to exclude the possibility of moral commitment and to impose the philosophical cop-out doctrine of consequentialism. This says that in a world in which there is no moral consensus, only the consequences of decisions can be discussed. In other words: ethics cannot be allowed to interfere with the smooth working of any ethics committee.

This world in which those in charge of ethics do not actually believe in them was hilariously encapsulated by Professor Raanan Gillon, editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, when he insisted: 'My preference is not to interfere, but let people come to their own decisions.'

Since we appear to have decided not to have real ethical debates, then the negotiations we have in their place will inevitably tend to move in the direction of the hard scientists. Their case will always appear stronger because, in the absence of coherent commitment from the other side, the opposition can always be portrayed as irrational, Luddite or even barbaric. Protests will be heard as sectarian voices, too specialised to be of significance.

The reality is that the invasion of the human self is the new barbarism. The Enlightenment answered the moral and philosophical challenge of science with a simple statement: the human self is an end in itself and can never be a means to an end. This can be taken to be either a religious affirmation or a humanist statement of what must be sacred. It is now likely to be overthrown by technological and commercial pressures. But we, the last heirs of the Enlightenment, can still try to hold the line. For the statement is perfectly reasonable; it is not specialised, sectarian or Luddite, and it provides a beautifully simple response to the hard scientists: 'Yuk means no.'