Rev Professor David Wilkinson - 06/12/16

Good morning. Tomorrow, the Progress Educational Trust will bring together a group of scientists, philosophers and theologians to consider whether it is now time to get rid of the 14-day limit on embryo research. This limit is part of British law and is now under pressure due to scientific advances. Yet Mary Warnock, whose commission proposed the 14 days, is opposed to such an extension as she fears a backlash that could limit embryo research. Others suggest that this would once again bring religious figures and scientists into bitter conflict.

Twenty five years ago, the Warnock commission successfully found a consensus which could stand up in law allowing research on early embryos to support techniques such as IVF, while reassuring public concerns on uncontrolled experimentation. The limit was chosen as 14 days, as the spinal cord had not developed in the embryo. Further reassurance came from the fact that no scientist had successfully kept an embryo alive in the lab for anywhere near that time. But earlier this year, two groups reported sustaining human embryos for 12-13 days. Studies of embryos at this stage and beyond may improve IVF success rates and help in understanding and treating certain tumours and miscarriage.

So should this new science change the ethical consensus and then legislation? For some religious believers, this rapid progress of science can be disturbing not only in beliefs around the beginnings of human life but also the fear of a slippery slope into later and later experimentation.

Yet for me, these real concerns are held in tension with two other principles in Christian faith. First, many at the forefront of science and medicine have seen it as a gift from God. Francis Bacon saw it as a way of bringing some healing to a fallen creation. In the same tradition, I regard science as a positive opportunity to enrich human existence. Second, Christian ethics has worked with a sense of stewardship of the natural world which encourages the taking of risks in technology for the common good but also has concern for protecting the weak.

The Warnock 14 day limit was never intended to give a clear answer to the onset of moral status in human embryos. Rather, its success was an agreement in public policy which allowed space for scientific inquiry and at the same time gave respect to different views on embryo research. In looking again at the limit scientists therefore cannot proceed without a wider consensus where I hope they will find religious thinkers as constructive partners.

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