No Room at the Cosy Table


Universe Column for October 10th 2004

By David Alton

As pro-lifers gather in London this weekend for their National Day for Life, it is worth considering for a moment just how this country ditched its belief in the sanctity of human life. It was an insidious process. It began with the subversion of  intellectual life.  Then, as the “thinkers” poisoned the wells, one after another, acts previously judged as homicide were euphemistically held to be socially enlightened and deeply liberal acts of compassion.

The elite that engineered these changes in social policy – on everything from abortion to euthanasia – brook no dissent and ruthlessly squeeze out any dissenting voices. We currently have the bizarre spectacle of a parliamentary committee considering whether to legalise euthanasia and having first appointed the leading advocate of euthanasia as a member proceeded to call him as a witness to give evidence!

But this should come as no surprise.

When in 1984 the Oxford philosopher, Baroness Warnock, was appointed to chair the committee (that gave the go ahead for human embryo experimentation) she told the BBC that she specifically vetoed the appointment of a particular member of the committee on the grounds of his religion and moral beliefs. So much for democracy.

She graphically outlined the process of how the Committee was established: “The potential Chairman is approached either by the Minister or by the Permanent Secretary or both. But, of course, one doesn’t know how many other people have been approached.

“I sometimes get the feeling really that they sort of wade through dozens of names and then come up with someone who’s a sucker and says yes. But, at any rate, after that, the thing is shrouded in mystery really.

“There exists what is generally known as the Central List. And the Central List is produced and combed for people who might have an interest in this kind of thing.

“I was then given a kind of draft list and asked whether there were any other people I thought would be obvious choices.  “Maybe people who were not yet among the great and the good. And I was with some difficulty allowed a power of veto.”

She continued: “There was one particular person who was supposed to be the Catholic and I said I would not have him.  “I just knew that I couldn’t work with him. We went right up to the day before publication with the civil servants saying, ‘But there’s nobody else in the world’.  “So, in the end, the night before publication, I said, ‘Well, will you please tell the Minister that it’s a very, very bad way to embark on working on a committee when you know that there’s somebody you’re not going to find easy to work with’. “The following morning two names were suggested. So I did win on that but it was very, very hard and it took a lot of persistence.”

Persistence became precedence and the Government have enshrined the Warnock principle.  They have just announced the new membership of the Human Genetics Commission.   It’s the same old faces and the same old opinions.

Among them is Professor John Harris – bioethicist and, surprise, surprise, member of the BMA Ethics Committee – who, in January 2004, expressed support for sex selection, with no personal objection in principle to methods used to achieve it, whether by sperm sorting, embryo selection or abortion.

When asked whether he would go one step further and endorse infanticide if a child of the undesired sex carrying a genetic disorder managed to remain undetected during pregnancy, Professor Harris responded,  ‘I don’t think infanticide is always unjustifiable. I don’t think it is plausible to think there is any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal.’   He clarified that infanticide should not be used as a method of sex selection but that there are indeed circumstances, when it would be justifiable to kill a child after it had be en born. He declined to say up to what age he thought infanticide should be permitted.

Harris said the following in the Daily Telegraph on 25th January 2004 :

“There is a very widespread and accepted practice of infanticide in most countries. We ought to be much more upfront about the ethics of all of this and ask ourselves the serious question: what do we really think is different between newborns and late foetuses?

“There is no obvious reason why one should think differently, from an ethical point of view, about a foetus when it’s outside the womb rather than when it’s inside the womb.”

Professor Harris added that it was up to individual families to make a decision on the future of their child and that he was not concerned that such a course of action could lead to infanticide for cosmetic reasons.

“I don’t believe there is any such thing as a slippery slope,” he said. “I think that we are always on one. It is our responsibility not to avoid the moral choice.

“We shouldn’t make a bad decision now because we fear it will lead us to make another bad decision in the future. We should make a good decision now and have the courage to believe we will make a good decision in the future too.”

The Harris philosophy is that we do not matter morally simply by virtue of being members of the human race. Rather, “persons” matter morally and a “person” is an individual capable of valuing his/her own existence. As a result, embryos, foetuses, newborn babies, those in PVS, patients with severe dementia etc are not “persons” and cannot be wronged by being killed. On the other hand, some animals have greater ethical status than human beings as they have a greater capacity to value their own existence.

Thus embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia are all perfectly acceptable according to Mr. Harris. His is a crude philosophy that provides a ‘one size fits all’ solution to all of the major ethical issues of our day.  It also makes him an ideal candidate for membership of prestigious committees. And, needless-to-say, he was one of the first to be invited to give evidence to the committee considering legalising euthanasia.

It says it all that you can argue for infanticide or euthanasia and the Government will appoint you as an ethical watchdog, but, whatever you do, don’t call yourself a Catholic. If you do, there will be no room for you at their cosy table.