August 24th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Embryo experiments: are there any limits?

ALP's problems deeper than pre-selections and branch-stacking

Zimbabwe: Mugabe aggravates drought crisis

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dizzy with success / Angry amnesiacs

EMBRYO EXPERIMENTATION: Consuming our unborn is indefensible

LAW: High Court judgment deepens native title confusion

General Cosgrove was wrong on Vietnam (letter)

Why the stock market plunged (letter)

Snowy River plan damages Murray basin (letter)

Infrastructure savings (letter)

COMMENT: Whose voice can be heard?

VICTORIA: Public forces backdown on Victorian sex zone plans

POPULATION: Time to set the record straight

COMMENT: Can the ABC be saved from itself?

ECONOMY: The Reserve, interest rates and inflation

ASIA: Taiwan's banking system under siege

BOOKS: Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

BOOKS: American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, by Thomas Keneally

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Consuming our unborn is indefensible

by Andrew Cameron

News Weekly, August 24, 2002
This week we heard that embryonic stem cell researchers now hope to grow the dissected remains of one embryonic human on the aborted remains of another.

Yes, some of us are appalled that aborted foetuses are being consumed rather than respected, just as we respect the bodies of adults who have died. To find this abhorrent does not equate to a careless lack of interest in the plight of the sick and disabled. And the current use of aborted foetuses in research does not mean that there is no moral objection to such a use, whether in stem cell research or elsewhere.

Key objections

The Christian objection to these practices, shared by many in this community, is that despite the possibly positive outcomes, we are turning into a society who consumes our unborn for our own benefit.

That is, we are becoming a society which can measure the rightness of a thing only by whatever consequences are promised to us. This is known as consequentialism or utilitarianism. We no longer notice what is happening; we look forward only to the promised results.

People have an uncanny ability to justify actions incrementally. Embryonic experimentation begins since it will produce new life in IVF. Abortion is permitted for the sake of women whose lives are endangered by a pregnancy or who wish to exercise reproductive choice.

With inexorable logic, it is declared a waste to let "spare" embryos and foetal tissue go unused, and research using both is promoted. Biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies, and public research institutes commend themselves as the most efficient means of spreading benefit to the sick masses.

And what do we now have? A society so hostile to children that it has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and which uses the dead bodies of its abortions and its embryos for the consumption of the living.

And a multibillion-dollar global industry is now based upon these practices.

We have been a consumer society for so long that for us, it seems right to consume our own unborn.

This consumption is not, in the first instance, by the disabled and the sick. Currently the main consumers work in the biotech industry, who serve to profit both professionally and financially on the tissue of these beings who have never been allowed to be born.

For some of us, the results for some future generation of sick people do not justify this extraordinary system of medical research practices. During the course of the stem cell debate, a number of erroneous claims have been made about people who oppose research on embryonic tissue.

For example, some weeks ago, the New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, attacked those opponents of embryonic stem cell research who say that "humanity should suffer", since suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition "dictated by original sin" (SMH, June 27).

Clearly, he has some form of Christianity in mind. But the implication that we are somehow pro-suffering is extraordinary and unjustifiable, given that historically, the Christian Church has been at the forefront of public medicine.

Nor are we thereby anti-progressive, since we applaud all attempts to heal sickness using morally uncontroversial methods - which, in this case, include research into adult stem cells.

(Indeed we wholeheartedly believe that scientists are brilliant enough to overcome whatever setbacks they see in adult stem cell research.)

We call for a halt to these practices for the same reasons that someone in early Nazi Germany should have called for a halt to the medical research practices that were slowly building upon themselves during that period.


As in that time and place, Australian medicine is being co-opted by something other than the promotion of life. Therefore we will oppose these practices, and continue to oppose them whether or not they are law, on the same ancient biblical grounds that gave us what we value in the modern West.

The Bible's claim that God values the unborn, the fatherless and weak, and people in general, is a primal and fundamental fact.

Even if subsequently secularised, this biblical claim has given the West its basis upon which to care for the sick, stop the slave trader, protect the elderly and weak, and respect the dead.

If our opposition means that we are entering a protracted engagement with those who measure the value of life in consequentialist terms alone, then so be it.

Far from having passed its use-by date, the ancient Judeo-Christian ethic finds itself once again at centre stage, to save us from ourselves.

  • Andrew Cameron is a lecturer in ethics at Moore Theological College

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