Pass the sickbag, baby Jesus

Religion’s all right when it doesn’t deal in sentimentality. But much of the religious comment on the Embryo bill has been just disgusting. I would have voted in favour in favour of lowering the abortion limit myself; I fully accept the Catholic argument that we shouldn’t risk harming sentient beings: I just disagree over where and how to assess the risk that foetuses are sentient. Embryos certainly aren’t. But [“George Pitcher’s piece”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/05/21/do2103.xml] in today’s _Telegraph_ had no more substance than a [“hagfish”:http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/vertebrates/basalfish/myxini.html]. It starts with an anecdote about a six-year-old child who was asked to give blood to his sister and agreed to do so even though he thought this would involve his own death. There’s one large snag with this story, which, to his credit, he does explain:

bq. It might have been apocryphal, but it hardly matters in the way that such stories speak the truth to power.

Well, no: if in fact it never happened, then it’s not speaking truth to anyone and if the powerful take any notice, it’s speaking lies to power.

Anyway, he goes on to say that while he would absolutely not in practice be opposed to saviour siblings, we ought to worry about them in principle, for reasons which seem to me every bit as phony as the earlier anecdote:

bq. At one level, there is the profound effect on their self-worth that this new generation of little donors will have to bear. To put it vulgarly, if Leo grows up to resent that his mother conceived him because she was too embarrassed to carry her “equipment” with her to Balmoral, how much more embarrassing might it be to be brought into the world to be a piece of equipment.

If little Leo grows up to resent that he was the result of a contraceptive failure, he should get over himself. Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that god has a purpose for you even if it is invisible to the outside world, and to your parents? And, from a non-christian point of view, why should the world acknowledge any legitimacy to the teenager’s complaint “I didn’t ask to be born”? No one asked to be born and it’s absurd to think that your parents wanted you in particular. They took their chances at conception and hoped for the best. They may have got lucky. You and they may have collaborated to produce a decent human being. But no one could have foreseen which decent human being this would be at birth, still less at conception.

bq. “Beyond that, there are philosophical principles here that go to the heart of our civilisation – and to the heart of anyone who would fall to their knees in front of that small boy to tell him that he would not be harvested for his sibling. The doctrine of Imago Dei emerged from the Greek patriarchs.”

OK, so the _Telegraph’s_ subs don’t know the difference between Father and Patriarch.

bq. They didn’t have to worry about embryology, but they did establish that humans were made in the image of God, which spoke of superiority to the rest of creation, the quality of an immortal soul and the gift of reason. Above all, the idea was identified with free will; that every life is sacred and unique, a principle that has shone down the ages. It follows that such lives have their own purpose. We are, for the first time, enshrining in law the principle that babies can be born for someone else’s purpose.

If it wasn’t enshrined in law earlier, that’s is only because it’s completely bloody self-evident. How many _Telegraph_┬áreaders have had babies because they didn’t want their other one to be a lonely only child? How many have had babies because they wanted a boy, or a girl, and hadn’t had one yet? Isn’t it the duty of an aristocratic family to produce an heir? In all these cases and throughout human history, babies are born for the purposes of the family or the tribe to which they belong. In other contexts, _Telegraph_┬áreaders understand this very well. If some fifteen-year-old on benefits starts having babies just because she loves them, they see her as a threat to society. But sentimentality and cruelty have always gone hand in hand. Neither gives religion any credit. You would have thought, however, that an ordained priest like Pitcher would be familiar with the story of one baby who was born “for us men and for our salvation” with consequences generally agreed by Christians to have been wholly beneficial.

(part of an occasional series of posts too bad tempered to print)

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3 Responses to Pass the sickbag, baby Jesus

  1. well said! i came here via the church times blog and had been vaguely aware of this debate (i live in australia, so its not directly related to me) but had only heard christians saying stupid anti-choice things about it. and i know there are pro-choice christians out there. anyway i appreciated the way you talked about religion and the issues here. so cheers.

  2. Oliver says:

    Just to say that the thing which worries me about the saviour sibling idea is the conflict of interest in the parents, which does seem to be raised a little higher by the procedure than is normal. Would a court-appointed medical guardian to have some say in the second child’s interests, rather than assuming them to be fully represented by the parents, not be a reasonable thing to consider?

  3. acb says:

    Oliver, I don’t know. I can’t see any real difficulty with your idea — but all my examples of parents discriminating between children on the basis of utility are drawn from very low tech conflicts: asking whether it is worthwhile feeding another daughter, stuff like that. I suppose that strengthens your point. Given that we certainly demand that the state step in to prevent the first kind of exploitation, why should the second be any different?

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