In an article in the Times today, William Rees-Mogg asks, “Whatever happened to the ‘yuk’ factor.” Referring to the passage of the Human Fertilisaiton and Embryology Bill through the House of Lords, he writes, “In 1990 it was not just the hereditary peers who found the idea of animal-human hybrids simply too disgusting to be tolerated. It was the common response, the “yuk” factor as a test of the limits of scientific experimentation.”
Yet that ‘yuk’ has been overcome, and it is surely a significant signpost as to where our civilization is going, especially compared with whence it has come.
The end of the Second World War revealed to the general public the true extent of what had been happening in Nazi Germany, particularly in the concentration camps.
One aspect of these camps which caused particular horror was that human beings had been used as subjects for scientific experiments. The mere name of Dr Josef Mengele was enough to send a shudder of horror through anyone in these islands who knew what he had done in the name of ‘medicine’.
The horror, however, was not chiefly at the nature of the experiments themselves. It must remembered, these were the days when vivisection was regularly carried out, not only in search of cures for diseases, but to test cosmetics — and even out of sheer curiosity. Remember Pavlov’s dogs?
No, the horror was because the subject matter of those experiments was human beings. Whatever else one might do by way of experimentation and testing, there was widespread agreement at the end of the war that one didn’t carry out such experiments on human subjects. And anyone who suggested otherwise would instantly have been tarred with the same brush of moral opprobrium as had been used on the entire Nazi state and the individuals most closely associated with it.
Imagine a citizen of those days transported instantly, rather than via all the subtle changes which have since taken place, into the present. Imagine them being told, “Her Majesty’s Government are pushing through a bill in parliament to allow British scientists even more scope to experiment on human embryos. In fact, they will be allowed to do what Stalin’s scientists failed to achieve in the 1920s and finally create embryos combined of human and animal material.”
Such a person would fancy they had woken up in some ghastly alternative universe. They would perhaps rush outside, expecting to see the Swastika — or perhaps the Red Flag — where the Union flag once hung. And imagine their bafflement when they discovered the truth that not only was this true but that the public — the great British public that had defeated Hitler — frankly didn’t give a damn. In fact, the public had been persuaded by what our citizen would read as sheer propaganda.
There are a few sane voices left. Lord Alton spoke words of sense in the House of Lord’s debate on the 15th January:
If Members of your Lordships' House believe that the reason for prohibiting a true hybrid from being implanted and born is that that crosses the line between human and other species, and if the problem is that this disturbs our sense of what it is to be human—a point made earlier by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—we should surely, if it is so important to our common humanity and the basis of our ethics, tread very warily before permitting the creation of an animal interspecies embryo in the first place.
As the elusive question about definitions stalks our debate again today, we need to ask ourselves precisely what species this embryo is. The line will have been crossed; the species will have been crossed. Among those who are looking for funding and exploring every angle, no one really believes that the long-term prospects for stem cell research lie with cybrids or these new types of interspecies embryos. This is leading us into another blind alley. It is a scientific sideshow. Our first instincts were to ban it; those were the Government's first instincts, too, and they were the right ones.
Poor Dr Mengele! If only he had been born thirty years later. What he might have been allowed to do, and all in the best possible taste.
The trouble is, we have accepted the misconceived vision of humanity derived from a misapplication of 'Darwinism'. We have changed the way we think about what we are. Without a renewed vision of what it means to be human, our society will certainly perish, if it has not done so already.
24 March 2008
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