LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Carnley Goes It Alone

It was bound to happen. Over the last two months, following the debates in Europe and the USA, Australia took its turn to consider what constraints, if any, should be placed on human embryonic stem cell research.

Many Australian scientists want a no holds barred approach, and they lobbied hard with politicians and the media to persuade State and Federal governments to pave the way for the creation of unlimited numbers of human embryos for this purpose. They have tried to overcome the opposition of the churches and other conservative groups by detailing supposed benefits and cures that are expected to result from such activity.

Rome and Sydney

As the debate got under way, the Australian Roman Catholic Bishops expressed their opposition, based on the view that as human life begins at fertilization, human embryos should be treated as sacred. At the same time, however, they declared themselves to be in support of research using stem cells from adults.

Archbishop Peter Jensen and eleven other bishops of the Anglican Province of New South Wales, representing a fairly wide range of theological backgrounds, released an agreed statement to the media, supporting the Roman Catholic Bishops' stand. Only one bishop refused to back the statement, and that was the Right Reverend George Browning, Bishop of Canberra/Goulburn.

Speaking for the NSW. bishops, Archbishop Jensen said: ‘The Bible gives us a mandate to act as caretakers of creation. We should give every support and encouragement to medical research which seeks to find ways to reduce suffering in this world caused by the many debilitating illnesses in our society today.’

 

However, mirroring part of the Roman Catholic Statement, Jensen made it clear that in an area like embryonic stem cell research, the end could never justify the means.

He went on, ‘We are against the destruction of embryonic life in order to extract stem cells, particularly when there are perfectly ethical means of extracting the necessary cells from umbilical cord blood in newborns, and from the brain and bone marrow in adults.’

Biblical Principles

‘The Bible says that people are formed by God in their mother's womb. This is why we deeply respect pregnant women and the children they carry. Protecting embryos, and even stem cells, simply reflects this deep respect.’

‘We want to see illnesses healed – but not in a society that allows people to consume others to heal themselves. Destroying embryonic life to heal ourselves builds such a society, where the vulnerable are commodities to be used up by the powerful.

‘But when a mother and baby "donate" spare stem cells from the umbilical cord, or adults donate their own cells, embryonic life is not destroyed, and we build a society where healing is founded on giving, and where each person is precious.

‘Scientists might have to work harder for this result. But their great skill and intelligence should see them along the way. This path will guard their integrity. Scientists can help build a society based on giving to others, rather than upon consuming others.’

‘We are perturbed by recent news reports about companies planning to produce cloned human embryos for research. This amounts to the commodification of human life,’ the statement said.

Conservative compromise?

John Howard, Australia's Liberal (i.e. conservative) Prime Minister, faced a very difficult political situation. At the State level, the governments are in the hands of Labour, and their Premiers were pushing hard for open slather – that is, virtually no restriction to be placed on the growing and harvesting of human embryos for the purpose of stem cell research. Normally a ‘state rights’ man, Howard took advice from religious leaders, bio-ethicists and scientists, and worked out a compromise, which will restrict scientists to current embryo stocks until March 2003.

In the meantime, an ethics committee will draft a national set of rules to prevent scientists collecting embryos solely for research. The States will then have up to three years to agree on them.

Archbishop Jensen would have preferred a complete ban on embryonic stem cell research. But he admitted to being ‘somewhat heartened’ that the use of unwanted human embryos from the IVF program will be strictly regulated.

Pell Mel

Archbishop George Pell alluded to popular reaction when he said that ‘talk about "a victory for commonsense" and choosing "the enlightened road" (expressions used by various of the state premiers) are rhetorical devices which merely avoid the hard ethical issues for the sake of talking up the local biotech industry. The public deserves something better than politicians looking for photo opportunities with sick people seeking cures and dismissing the defenders of human life as "the most unapologetic, anti-scientific views in the community".’

Pell went on to speak of John Howard's claim that the compromise recommendations ‘balanced ethical considerations with the need for medical research’.

‘That was to misunderstand the relationship between science and ethics: the real challenge is to conduct medical research in ways which are themselves ethically sound’, said Pell.

For many Australian Christians who struggle to witness amongst their secular friends to Gospel values, the real disappointment throughout this debate has been Anglican Primate and Archbishop of Perth, Dr Peter Carnley. One might have thought that following the well-publicized and thoughtful collaboration of Sydney's Archbishops Pell and Jensen in affirming the sacredness of all human life, Dr Carnley would feel constrained to throw his support behind them.

Lone voice

Not so. Literally on the eve of the Anglican Bishops' conference, as if to try and reduce the impact of Jensen and the NSW bishops on the thinking of the rest, Carnley appeared on nation-wide media warmly endorsing the secular humanist view of the status of human embryos. In the end, the bishops simply reported that the issue had been discussed.

In contrast with mainstream Catholic theology, Carnley believes that until that the fourteen day ‘process of conception’ is complete we cannot speak of a ‘newly conceived person’, but only IVF ‘human genetic material’. He said that provided cells are harvested during this period, the kind of research advocated by the medical scientists is not only possible, but ought to be encouraged.

Christopher Pearson, writing in the Melbourne Age points out that: ‘At stake is a fundamental principle commonly held by people of almost all religions … Human life is sacred and it's not to be experimented on, except voluntarily. Abandon that principle and embryos will be brought into existence, not as now to create new life via IVF, merely to fulfil the demand extended by research in a moral vacuum.’

The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church says that ‘human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.’ Official church documents make it clear that this means from fertilization onwards.

Catholics, Evangelicals and other people of goodwill oppose the position of Carnley and the secular humanists because it is, in the end, de-humanizing. It introduces de facto in the name of health and well-being the principle of discriminating among human beings on the basis of the stage of development they have reached. We are not prepared to go down this track and say that an embryo is worth less than a fetus, when it logically leads us to say that a fetus is worth less than a child, a child is worth less than an adult!

David Chislett is Rector of All Saint’s Wickham Terrace, Brisbane in the Diocese of Brisbane.

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