Wildfire prejudice

This Thursday 3,300 human embryos, unfortunately dubbed the “ice babies” by some, will be ‘destroyed’ by government scientists. To be exact, these embryos - none of which are bigger than a pinhead, consisting of four or eight cells - will be thawed out and a drop of water or alcohol added to destroy them. They will then be incinerated.

Predictably, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, luridly stated: “Tens of thousands of innocent lives will be cut short by law. This is a pre-natal massacre”. Melanie Phillips of The Observer wrote about Thursday’s “looming mass embryocide” (July 28).

The background to this “pre-natal massacre” is relatively simple. Embryo freezing began in 1983, due to the fact that in vitro fertilisation usually produces more embryos than can be put back in the womb. It is estimated around 60,000 embryos are in storage, of which 9,000 were frozen before August 1991. Under present law, frozen embryos must be allowed to perish after five years unless the parents consent to further storage. However, 900 parents of these embryos have been untraceable or refused to reply.

Explaining the decision, the Human Fertilisation and Embryological Authority (HFEA) said it was preferable to destroy the embryos than to allow people to ‘adopt’ them, which is illegal and “ethically wrong”. Apparently, there are already couples who want to ‘adopt’ an embryo.

This is a very complex and important topic. Communists should be wary of coming out with glib, Living Marxism-type responses - ‘Fry them; it is science!’ or automatically labelling anyone who has qualms, of whatever nature, about such experimentation as “reactionary”. After all, Marxists realise that science under capitalism is ultimately subordinated to the narrow needs and interests of the ruling class, and therefore to the quest for profit. A scenario where private companies ‘farm’ embryos and sell them to the highest bidder is distasteful in the extreme.

However, the fuss generated by this “pre-natal massacre” is being used by reactionaries, most notably ‘pro-life’ campaigners, to promulgate their anti-science world view. Specifically, the ‘pro-lifers’ see the “ice babies” as a heaven-sent opportunity to crusade against abortion rights. We should never lose sight of this basic fact, whatever the moral and ethical complexities of the debate.

This ‘pro-life’ agenda is highly visible in Melanie Phillips’ article in The Observer, a newspaper which likes to pride itself on its impeccable secular-democratic liberal values. Here, she points the quasi-Christian finger at the “moral agenda”, which she claims “underpins both IVF and abortion”. What is this “agenda”? It is the “rights agenda that says it is a woman’s right to have a child if she wants one and her right to dispose of it if she does not”.

Philips’s agenda is clear, that is certain. For her the “ice babies” debate exposes the ‘evils’ of abortion rights - if a woman can have an abortion, everything else follows. An abortion here, a “pre-natal massacre there” and - before you know it - “embryocide”. A slippery slope indeed.

To her ‘credit’, Phillips takes this argument to its logical conclusion. Perhaps signalling her conversion to catholicism (watch the press), she laments the loss of the “idea that here is a potentially distinct human being which calls upon obligations beyond the individual ego ... How could it be otherwise if it is a woman’s right to choose?”

The large amount of ‘sympathetic’ coverage to the ‘pro-lifers’ demonstrates how downright irrational views and prejudices can spread like wildfire through society. Our supposedly ‘rational’ and secular bourgeois society can start to crumble with alarming ease. If the masses can be convinced that a cell cluster is a person, an “ice baby” which urgently needs a mercy dash, it would represent an enormous advance for the ‘pro-life’ lobby. They have seen a chance to gain ‘moral’ hegemony and they are going for it with ‘fundamentalist’ gusto.

It is worth noting that Dominic Lawson, editor of the Sunday Telegraph and father of a Down’s syndrome child, has proposed that a group called Atheists Against Abortion should be formed - you can be a rightwing bigot without being a Christian fundamentalist, complains Lawson. Celebrities like Roy Hattersley and Brian Sewell have been coming out of the closet recently, mumbling ‘pro-life’ sentiments. No doubt, at this very moment, there are many more ‘liberals’ out there trying to pluck up the courage to inform us how their ‘conscience’ troubles them when it comes to abortion, or the “massacre” of embryos.

Any future discussions on “ice babies” and IVF will be coloured by the ‘pro-lifers’. We need to combat them ruthlessly, while at the same time maintaining a mature and sensitive attitude towards individuals and ideas which instinctively distrust the scientific community and its promises of a brave new world.

Eddie Ford