“Those thinkers who cannot believe in any gods often assert that the love of humanity would be in itself sufficient for them; and so, perhaps, it would, if they had it.”
This debate has obliged the House of Commons to consider how we define human life and how we regard humanity.
Surely humanity means that we regard other human life as we regard our own. Such is the ethics of humanity. So it is our shared humanity that distinguishes us from animals; that determines how we should behave to one another; and determines especially that we should not deliberately distort the lives, or expedite the deaths, of fellow humans, whether those fellow human beings are born or unborn. There has been too little debate in this House about that definition of human life in relation to the Bill, too little clarity about the nature of human life.
It seems to me that the expectation of living human beings and the unborn-those incapable of conscious choice-is the same because of their shared humanity, and that is the prevailing view that should underpin our considerations of this Bill and these amendments to it. Each person is bound to respect the humanity of others, as they are bound to respect their own humanity. But humanity, or that view of it, is under great threat.
The work of Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, is most important, in contextual terms. For Singer, the ethics of humanity is objectionable because it amounts to what he calls “speciesism”. We have heard a great deal about the blend of animal materials and human cellular materials. Of course, if one does not believe the orthodox view of how to define humanity; if one defines it around the idea of personhood, when personhood itself is defined by the ability to exercise autonomy and choice, it becomes entirely permissible to manipulate human cellular material in the way the Bill will allow.
It is not self-consciousness, capacity for reason or autonomy that make us human, but something altogether more fundamental. All that the amendments would do is introduce greater clarity. Of course science matters, and of course scientific research is important, but, frankly, morals matter more. We should not define human cellular material in such speciesist terms. We should certainly not abandon our orthodox assumptions about those things that bind us together, born or unborn.
A great Jewish theologian said:
“A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought…at all times…Whose greatest passion is compassion…Whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill marks the malign abandonment of those values. By confusing or avoiding the definition of what is, or what is not, human, and by blurring the fundamental and profound ethical divide between ourselves and animals, it does immense damage to our humanity. It will do little for the reputation of Parliament among a wider public who will be bemused and alarmed that we can consider some of the things that the Bill will make permissible and some of the things that will result from its extension.
I repeat; science matters, but morals matter more.