Gene Editing, Consecrated Life and Candlemas

Yesterday the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved a limited form of experimental gene editing of human embryos (see BBC report here). For anyone who believes that life begins at conception, irrespective of whether that life lasts for only a few hours or many years, is born or is not born, as we commonly understand that term, it is a decision of enormous consequence. But because it is ‘science’, because it is presented in the language of compassion for those who are infertile or whose children miscarry, most of us are probably not thinking through the questions that follow in its train. By saying the embryos must be discarded after seven days and destroyed after fourteen, are we not saying, in effect, they are not human, they have no rights? The caveat that embryos which have been experimented on should never be implanted or allowed to grow to term may not cut much ice with those of us who remember the debate around the 1967 Abortion Act and the way in which many of its provisions seem to have been ignored. The prospect of GM human beings just came another step closer.

You notice that I have been careful to write of embryos whereas I naturally think of the unborn as babies. (Whoever said, ‘We’re expecting an embryo!’ or ‘I can feel my embryo moving!’) That is because I think the Church often fails to speak or even understand the language of those to whom she must proclaim the Gospel. Today, on the feast of Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of the Lord or the Purification of Mary), when we think of Simeon and Anna keeping faith through long years of hardship and disappointment and finally seeing the Glory of Israel, we tend to think of the elderly, of the gifts they bring to the Church, and we look backwards, perhaps to a Golden Age that never was. We forget the wars, the poverty, the ill-health, the sheer ignorance that marred the lives of many (as they still mar the lives of many in other parts of the world) and indulge in a little nostalgia. We think of peace after the day is done and the quiet tones of the Nunc Dimittis as night falls. The HFEA’s decision is comfortably forgotten in the soft gleam of candlelight and the sprinkle of holy water.

Let us be grateful, therefore, that today is not only the last of the Infancy feasts, a reminder of what the Incarnation means and Jesus’ purpose in becoming man, it is also the Jubilee marking the end of the Year of Consecrated Life. Quite a lot of people see religious life as irrelevant or a refuge for the stupid and are astonished when they discover that it is not necessarily either. Indeed, whether apostolic or contemplative, religious are great shakers-uppers of fixed ideas or accepted notions. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Mary Ward, Mother Teresa, they were all very different, but they exposed and overturned many of the fashionable complacencies of their day. The Church has never had greater need of people whose whole lives will proclaim the absolute transcendence of God and the importance of the Gospel in defiance of whatever society endorses as ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’.

Today, as we process holding our flickering candles, let us pray that God will continue to call and uphold those whose service of the temple is, in many respects, hidden but who, by their very existence, assert the reality of values that go beyond the present and reach into eternity. And may those privileged to serve in the temple continue to pray that we may never lose sight of our humanity or fail to be humble in the presence of Life.


17 thoughts on “Gene Editing, Consecrated Life and Candlemas”

  1. I have difficulty deciding what I think about gene editing. One of my stidents died from cystic fibrosis in her first term at uni, and a friend has spent his life dealing with haemophilia. A potential cure for such conditions wojld be wonderful. Also, I had a contraceptive coil forma couple of years witnout realising how it worked (causes VERY early abortion, every month I think). Also, I have an ex student pinning her hopes of parenthood on IVF. Please pray for Sonia and her husband Simon who are longing for children. They are Moslems, deeply committed to their faith but also respectful of Jesus and open to talking about faith issues.

    • I think we’d all agree that cures for some of the terrible diseases people suffer from are much to be desired, prayed and worked for; but the means do matter. One of our problems is that many theologians do not have enough science to engage fully with the arguments, just as many scientists do not have enough theology to appreciate the objections some of us want to raise. Praying, as always.

      • So interesting, both the blog and the responses. A lot of fascinating questions surround all research involving embryos, and ethics. I’m not sure whether we can even see the Incarnation as opposed to the use of a fertilised human cells in research, it is a hard choice … the main fear of course being where it is going to go – a good point made re the 1967 Abortion Act. What can be said is that with every invention, and scientific discovery, there seems to be both good and evil outcomes, and so the future does lie in our hands. In our free will. Which means our governments and our prevailing cultural norms. I’m not mad about the blame culture we now have, yet there is also much good here as well. Prayer much needed! Thanks for the blog which I shall now ‘follow’ in addition to tweets.

  2. The debate over ‘gene editing’ is one which rouses strong opinions on both sides. Which have a tendency to generate more heat than light. How helpful to read your measured comments on a matter in which discussion often turns into ‘flat statements, followed by flat contradictions, followed by abuse’. Hopefully your thoughtful words will help everyone involved in this research to think very, very hard about what they are doing, and only do it for valid reasons. My respect to you, as always.

    • Thank you. I’m sure someone better qualified than I to deal with both the scientific and the philiosophical/theological issies will write at length in due course. In the meantime, I don’t think we can excuse ourselves from thinking and praying as best we can, do you?

  3. Thank you for your observation on a very difficult topic. May I offer a comment. How do we define “conception”? Collins English Dictionary provides this definition “the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm in the Fallopian tube followed by implantation in the womb”. Note it implies that conception requires implantation. Whilst I am very uncomfortable with this, is this the loophole that gives the experimenters an excuse to conduct their research?

    • I think you’ll find other dictionaries are less specific, linking their definitions of conception merely to the act of conceiving a child without requiring implantation in the fallopian tubes. The Latin verb from which conception comes, concipere, is, of course, less specific still in terms of biology. Personally, I would place conception at the mopment the sperm fertilizes the egg. I think Stuart’s point about researchers wanting to explore what is possible is very true — and I do believe that many believe that they are acting in everyone’s best interests. It’s only some who are squeamish about the morality of the means, with our complicated ideas about human rights and autonomy having genuine existence apart from any ability to live independently.

  4. I have been ill most of my adult life. All the various ailments could be cured by such new advances in science. I’m glad such interventions were not possible. Had they been I would not have been the person I am. It is through a lifetime of struggle with inherited illness that I gave become who I am.

    My first university discipline was entirely scientific and I understand th desire to explore what is possible. My son in law is at the cutting edge of current research into creating artificial proteins that can be targeted at various cancers. He unfortunately is an atheist and grew up completely ignorant of all things Christians. To him the ethics of what he can do are not informed by Christian teaching.

    Some of the areas he works in I admire others I have ethical problems with.

    I am fortunate to have been gifted to be able straddle both horses of science / theology and history. There is a total lack for the most part of dialogue or even respect between the two disciplines which ought not to exist as they are completely compatible.

    • I agree they are compatible. The tragedy is that too often we don’t let them be. I’m glad I went to Cambridge, where science is so important and made friends who still argue with me with great lucidity as well as passion.

  5. An interesting discussion, conducted with careful thought about the issues. However, I am a little concerned about the comment that the experimenters are looking for a loophole as an ‘excuse to conduct their research’. In the main, scientists, like most others, work in accord with their consciences. In their view (which, in order to understand the basis of my comment, I should make clear that I share) the few embryonic cells do not constitute a human being in the way it is generally apprehended, and the potentially immense human benefits to be gained from pursuing this genetic research are what drive the experimentation. From this viewpoint, there is no need to look for an excuse to conduct the research.

    I fully understand that there is a contrary religious viewpoint, which has been cogently expressed in Digitalnun’s blog, and it is of course critically important that any research involving life forms (human or otherwise) needs to be scrutinised extremely carefully ant thoroughly, with the many different moral and ethical viewpoints being considered, as part of a measured and ongoing discussion. In that process, it is important that all involved are credited with having honourable motives and working in accord with their consciences, unless or until they are shown to be acting or speaking with dishonourable intent.

    • The question raised here (by Ruth) is the constitution of conscience. What informs conscience and how does one judge it? There is a fallacy and a failure to follow through the argument here. What drives most scientific research is grant money and the current mores within the discipline concerned along with professional motivations of personal ambition.

      If my conscience tells me it is ok to abort babies does that make it right? In a society without a collective set of values each seems to make their own decisions to a large extent. We are encouraged at the moment to adopt British Values (as defined by the Government) something that is incompatible with being a Catholic.

      The greatest temptation each soul faces is the desire to be their own God.

      • Stuart, I think you are being a little unfair to Ruth, and indeed, to scientific researchers in general. I genuinlely believe that most scientific research is motivated by a desire to know (not the tantalising thought of a big grant or a gong!) and, in the case of medical research, a desire to help people with certain conditions. The trouble comes, as you rightly note, when we do not agree on some of our basic understandings of life, autonomy, rights, etc. I believe that life begins at conception and that we do not have the right to use human embryos in the way that the HFEA is now permitting. It does not follow that those who welcome such research are lacking integrity. The bigger question your comment raises is one I hope to address in another post.

  6. I’ve not heard where these embryos come from? Are they the discarded lives following successful IVF procedures? A short distance from my home there is a private fertility clinic where many embryos are kept frozen. Patients sign off to destroy or donate those they do not wish to have implanted. I often wonder whether the day will come when unwanted children will be implanted into artificial wombs and allowed to develop for the purpose of organ harvest? Horrific as that sounds when we consider stem cell research and the selling of fetal tissue we’re not too far from that.

    I used to think we were most afraid of death, but these days I believe we are more afraid of life – life that we cannot control, create, alter, destroy as though we were ourselves God. We do need religious to witness to the truth of the kingdom of God, to reassure and encourage us to stay the course. We need to be reminded that there is a continuum of existence and to stand up to the secular world’s desecration of life.

  7. Always a tricky topic. The science around cures/treatmets is amazing but I do feel the need to ask are there some things you just should not do even if they benefit someone?

    There are arguments about whether religion has got certain social/moral issues right but I do feel that life beginning at the moment of conception (As soon as the cell contains the full potential to be human – it is human) is not only morally but scientifically true. There is no real gap in logic. I pray for all those who perhaps turn a blind eye because there is some good at the end of a process that uses life as a commodity.

  8. I’m coming in here a little late. But I can’t get over the Sanctity of life. And for me, along with many others, life starts at conception.

    I am uncomfortable with any form of genetic engineering, although I understand the work being done to help and assist those with fertility issues.

    But, the interference with God’s creation that is implied by this type of intervention is something that I don’t accept is either moral and shouldn’t be legal.

  9. we are living in strange times, when it is almost that ‘everyone does what is right in their own eyes’ and indeed is encouraged to – unless of course that means doing what is right in the eyes of their ‘religion’. When studying sociology (1993 approx) I remember a discussion of the need for a ‘strong secular state’ in order that research may proceed. So, think anything except that their is a God who cares. This is a difficult ‘moral values’ area, since although many secularists would like to bring in the Classical philosophers and their more contemporary equivalents, Christianity has informed our morality for 2000 years (in Western nations particularly) and this brought with it the ‘sanctity of life’ and the emphasis on compassion, and made the Hypocratic ‘first do no harm’ a consideration. So, society is now all at sea … Personally what I feel is the most important is compassion and what Dawkins dismisses, ‘altruism’. Others may debate the status of the embryo: I haven’t really thought that one out, but was raised to be totally against abortion and all its relatives. I have changed my mind on this, out of compassion and realism, but I do respect others who have not. And where does this leave us over using very very early fertilised cells? Partly, wishing that the facts didn’t point to the facts of evil uses being usually found for what was found initially for doing good …

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