Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 March 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: The Catholic Church Attacks Brown’s Achilles’ Heel

It intrigued me that it was the Catholic Cardinal of Scotland who chose this Easter to lead the campaign to persuade GB [Gordon Brown] to allow MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Why was it the Scottish Cardinal, Archbishop Keith O’Brien, and not the Cardinal for England and Wales, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor? At least if it’s O’Brien, that means the legislation itself must relate to Scotland as well as England and Wales, I thought to myself. This fact couldn’t be taken for granted, as nowhere in the coverage did it mention which countries of the UK the bill related to. I felt compelled to check; and, indeed, in the bit of the bill headed ‘Extent’ (section 67 of 69), it did indicate that the legislation would extend to “England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

I was pleased that it mentioned all the nations of the UK individually instead of saying ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. But any illusion that this did constitute a reference to England as a distinct entity was brutally swept away by the thought that this phrase in fact acknowledges only three legal entities, or rather three jurisdictions: those of a) England and Wales, b) Scotland and c) Northern Ireland. Well, let’s console ourselves with the thought that at least in law England still exists as a formal entity, albeit joined at the hip to Wales, which shares its legal system.

But I digress. So, given that the bill related to retained matters (science, social equality and medical ethics), there was nothing untoward about the fact it was a senior Scottish Catholic churchman who was selected to voice the Church’s criticism of the bill and demand a free vote. But why choose a Scot in particular? Because, over and above Catholic MPs, particularly Labour ones, it was Scottish Catholic, and more generally Christian, voters who were being targeted. The Cardinal was not only urging GB to concede that MPs should be allowed to vote with their consciences but was stating that, in conscience, no Catholic MP could do anything other than vote against the bill. And if, despite the Church’s round condemnation of the bill as being un-Christian in its ethical principles, GB still insisted on whipping the vote, then, by implication, the Labour Party led by GB could not take the Scottish Catholic vote for granted in subsequent elections.

How significant a factor would the loss of the Catholic vote be to Labour, particularly in Scotland? It is the case that most Catholics in Scotland have traditionally voted Labour. More generally, it’s been suggested that the Catholic vote throughout the UK helped Labour secure its third term. The Church in Scotland has threatened before to urge its members to withdraw their support from Labour for creating a “morality devoid of any Christian principle”. Objections to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill have been voiced in similar terms. In an interview on BBC Radio Four’s World at One programme on Good Friday, Cardinal O’Brien referred (and I paraphrase) to the weird, un-Christian ethics that New Labour was promoting. This is what I would call its – and, in particular, GB’s – secular-British values of economic, social and technological progress. Labour spokespersons who have defended the bill have spoken of the benefits the research using hybrid human-animal embryos would procure in terms of treating chronic illnesses, of the importance of advancing (British) science and of the leadership position that permitting such research now might give Britain in the market for the new therapies that could result (partly because many other leading developed economies have banned the research on ethical grounds). All well and good; but the ends don’t justify the means: if what is being proposed is fundamentally morally wrong, then we should just try to achieve those economic, social and scientific goals by other means.

But could the Catholic Church actually deliver this transfer of electoral allegiance away from Labour on the part of its adherents? Well, it has to be said that the condemnation of the Bill in Cardinal O’Brien’s sermon today, and particularly the attack on GB for sponsoring the Bill, pulls no punches. One passage in particular contains a series of sentences unambiguously attributing responsibility for the ethically condemned aspects of the Bill squarely to GB:

“He is promoting a bill which will add to the 2.2 million human embryos already destroyed or experimented upon.

He is promoting a bill allowing scientists to create babies whose sole purpose will be to provide, without consent of anyone, parts of their organs or tissues.

He is promoting a bill which will sanction the raiding of dead people’s tissue to manufacture yet more embryos for experimentation.

He is promoting a bill which denies that a child has a biological father, allows tampering with birth certificates, removing biological parents, and inserting someone altogether different.

And this bill will indeed be used to further extend the abortion laws.”

Any Catholic hearing or reading this would be left in no doubt that GB and New Labour had put themselves morally beyond the pale if they push through this Bill by denying their MPs a free vote. And this could be an electorally significant factor, especially on GB’s Scottish home turf. Significantly, the SNP has not missed the opportunity to make it clear that their MPs will be given a free vote.

And it’s not just Catholics who will be urged to take a long hard look at Labour from an ethical perspective. I doubt, for instance, if many of the God-fearing folk of Kirkcaldy will be too impressed by GB’s wholehearted support for measures that are repugnant not only to most believers but to the much-vaunted British senses of decency and fair play – in this instance, fair play not just towards embryos but to children denied a right to a father (see my previous discussion). Will the son of the manse be going to the kirk this Easter Sunday morning, I wonder?

So all of this places GB in an uncomfortable double bind: carry on denying his MPs the right to vote against the Bill on grounds of conscience, and risk being seen as un- (if not anti-) Christian, and losing the Catholic and Christian vote – particularly damaging in Scotland; or back down, and again be seen as indecisive and as not having the courage of his convictions owing to his obsession with ensuring Labour can be re-elected into power next time.

Happy Easter, Gordon!



  1. I see suffering. Parkinson’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Disease. Motor Neurone Disease. These usually affect the elderly but can affect the young too. The suffering is real and the people suffering are real. Medical researchers need available to them a full range of tools to tackle these diseases. A cluster of human embryonic cells is not a human being. It is a potential human being. In fact, it is several potential human beings, because the cells can be split apart leading to identical twins. Are we to force people to reproduce, to ensure every potential being is born? Should we intervene in the process to split embryos, so that twins are born instead of a single person? No, these ideas are ridiculous. Let the study and research continue so that the suffering of real people can be brought to an end.

    Comment by Darren Reynolds — 23 March 2008 @ 8.27 pm | Reply

  2. Darren, if a cluster of human embryonic cells is not a human being, is a human-animal hybrid embryo human or not? If not, where does being merely animal, or merely living tissue, end and being human begin? And does what you call the non-human-being status of human embryonic cells make these cells also in a sense not human? Is the humanity of living human cells therefore dependent on those cells forming an individuated human person or being? If so, does this make it OK to conduct experiments on living human cells (indifferently – or to a different degree? – whether inserted into an animal ovum or not) so long as they’re just a cell cluster – up to 14 days, say, or whatever random point the legal limit is – but not after that point, when those cells are supposed to be an individual human person (but not, apparently, a human being with human rights as it can still be legally aborted, if not killed through experimentation)?

    These are the kind of logical contortions and fallacious, self-serving categorial distinctions that are involved in trying to justify destructive procedures against some forms of pre-natal human life but not (or, depending on your point of view, equally as much as) others. Far simpler and more respectful of the sacredness of human life and the universality of human rights to say that if something is alive and human it should not be wilfully destroyed, which equates to it being treated as if it were non-human or partially human. As in all such supposedly progressive and egalitarian science, this involves treating the needs and status of some human beings (or entities, or living cells), such as sufferers from chronic diseases, as taking precedence over those of others: ‘my rights are greater than those of embryos / embryonic cells’; ‘all men are equal – but some are more equal than others’.

    This is not to say that the needs of those who suffer from chronic diseases aren’t worthy of the full attention of medical science. But there has to be a better way; and with our God-given ingenuity and the truth of a loving God that wants to heal our hurts and sicknesses, I’m sure we can find alternatives that will bring the same results. But maybe the choice for anti-human methods just shows the extent to which we’ve lost our respect for the sanctity of human life and our faith in a loving God.

    Comment by David — 24 March 2008 @ 2.25 am | Reply

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