The leader of Scotland’s Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, is shocked at the government’s proposals for stem-cell research. I am shocked that a representative of a religious group — even one so ancient and prestigious as the Catholic Church — should presume to tell Catholic MPs how they should vote. Parliamentarians are elected to serve the best interests of their constituents, not to take instruction from external organisations, however august. (This stricture does not, of course apply to taking advice from their party, since almost all MPs are elected on a Party Manifesto, which gives the party’s position a democratic legitimacy).
Of course we expect MPs to exercise their judgement in the light of their values, their convictions, and their conscience (assuming they have one). Indeed we hope to elect honourable men and women with high standards. But that is twice removed from accepting instructions from their religious or other group. Do we expect doctor MPs to accept instructions from the BMA, or lawyer MPs to get their marching orders from the Law Society? First of all, the parliamentarian’s duty, in the course of his work, is to those who elected him. It is wrong in principle, and anti-democratic, for him to give a higher priority to any other interest. (This is why I have a problem with trade-union-sponsored MPs). But secondly, an MP should not always seek to impose his personal morality on the general public through legislation.
Let’s take another example, also from the area of human reproduction. Abortion law is a vexed question. Indeed it features in the same legislation as the stem-cell question. I am perfectly content that a Catholic MP should regard abortion as morally wrong, and I respect that view. But I should have even greater respect for an MP who said “I believe that abortion is a sin, and I would never condone it for myself or for those close to me. But this is a personal conviction, and it is not my place as a legislator to impose my personal morality, through legislation, on others who may not share it. This is a moral choice but also a personal choice. Therefore while I would always argue against abortion, and counsel against it, I would not legislate against it”.
To take a more light-hearted example, I have no problem with an MP being a vegetarian, but I would have a big problem with any MP who sought to impose vegetarianism, by law, on the rest of us. So I would ask Cardinal O’Brien to back off, and to stop issuing instructions to MPs. If he wishes to instruct MPs to adopt Catholic morality, than he should field candidates at a General Election on a Catholic Morality Manifesto.
After that diatribe, no doubt someone will ask where I stand in the stem-cell issue, so I had better come clean. If we were to believe the more sensational tabloid press, if the plan were actually to create human/animals hybrids, if the proposals were for exhibits in zoos with human/chimpanzee crosses (which I believe may become technically feasible), then we should all have profound moral and practical concerns. I would absolutely oppose any such proposal. But there is no such proposal. All we are doing is manipulating DNA molecules. A DNA molecule is merely stored data. I see no more moral problem with manipulating a strand of DNA than in manipulating data in a computer.
Of course the Catholic position is that a fertilised human egg-cell is morally a human being, and entitled to the full panoply of human rights. I find that idea difficult to accept. An egg is not a chicken. An acorn is not an oak-tree. Every year millions of fertilised, potentially viable human ova are aborted spontaneously and flushed down the loo, without the putative mothers even knowing about them. We do not build memorials to these millions of lost lives We do not have funeral services for them. We do not regard their passing as a moral stain on humanity. And a strand of DNA is a great deal less than a two-day embryo.
So let’s allow our MPs to exercise their judgement in the interests of their constituents. But let us remind them that they do not always have to impose their personal views on others. In a free society, moral choices should be left, as far as possible, to the citizen.
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