Church leader declares crackpot ideas, gets free air time

This is another archival repost from the old blog — this one from March 2008.

Wow, a slow news day, eh? The BBC, shunning predictable Chinese military aggression, another turn of the tides in Iraq, and yet more boring news about the economy, lead with “Brown criticised over embryo bill“. Somebody at BBC News is clearly a fan of Cardinal Keith O’Brien. ‘Keith who?’ I hear you ask. What do you mean you’ve never heard of the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland? The big news is that O’Brien is making a fuss over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The bill, currently in parliament, will, amongst other things, make it easier for researchers to develop methods of growing tissues and organs that are genetically identical to those who require transplants or grafts, and is likely to help solve the problem of transplant rejection and the need for immunosuppressive drugs after transplants. Then there’s cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV, blah, blah. This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a terrible thing. I couldn’t put it better than O’Brien himself:

“This Bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life.”

The reason, of course, is that this bill enables the use of hybrid embryos. Putting little bits of reprogrammed adult human DNA into animal zygote cells. This presents all sorts of obvious problems for the Roman Catholic Church. It suggests the clearly impossible: that humans are animals, evolved like all other animals, and following the same developmental rules as our neighbours. The Cardinal is, I am sure, confident that hybrid embryos will never work, because of the obvious fact that cows, pigs and mice are not created in God’s image. That’s elementary stuff. Comes right at the beginning, in Genesis 1:27. It’s almost embarrassing that these biologists don’t know that.

Then there is the problem that this bill mentions embryology. The Roman Catholic church has, for the past few decades, tried to convince the world that it knows all about embryology. And don’t they just. Is it not the case that human embryos are human beings? Is it not so that fertilised eggs can think and feel, recite their twelve times tables, and lead missions into pagan lands? O’Brien is privileged with an intimate knowledge of God’s colossal mind, and he knows that God loves zygotes. So of course the Roman Catholic church must oppose a bill that makes such absurd claims as development being mind bogglingly complicated, life having fuzzy boundaries, or that you are infinitely more valuable and important than the half dozen skin cells that have fallen off your right index finger during your current browsing session.

Of course, it’s not just the mind of God that O’Brien knows intimately. God knows what you and I think, and he has spilled the beans to O’Brien:

“I can say that the government has no mandate for these changes: they were not in any election manifesto, nor do they enjoy widespread public support.”

Yes of course. Who is better placed to judge the beliefs, feelings and fears of the public on this matter than Cardinal Keith O’Brien? And he’s the perfect candidate to head this “single permanent national bioethics commission” that he proposes, too, what with his deep knowledge of developmental biology and reproductive medicine, and his profound understanding of the national mood. Not to mention that direct line to God. You couldn’t find a more representative candidate in the land.

Indeed, people were talking of nothing but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill on the crowded train home yesterday, and I can tell you, they’re not too happy about the army of monsters that are coming our way. “Haven’t these scientists ever heard of zombies,” one of them asked? Another was concerned that the convergence of reprogrammed human nuclear DNA with bovine mitochondrial DNA within the same cell membrane could just be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and leads God to break his promise never again to commit genocide by flooding the earth. One gabbling mouthbreather even pointed out that such an untested and unprecedented confluence of incompatible nucleotide sequences could, for all he knew, flip the earth’s magnetic poles and precipitate the fiery conclusion of the universe.

Oh wait, have I got that right? Now I think about it, perhaps Britain is not the reactionary backwater that O’Brien thinks it is. Perhaps the senile and simple individuals who pray for the souls of cells do not make more than an entertaining but tiny minority of people in this country. Perhaps, just maybe, O’Brien’s series of non-sequiturs have led him to a confused and offensively hyperbolic fantasy about morality that he is pretending is representative of a universal hallucination of the British public. Sure, this bill does not have widespread popular support. But that is because parliamentary bills get only widespread popular obliviousness and apathy. The cardinal is dreaming if he believes that there is widespread popular opposition to it.

How about a front page science story that doesn’t give 99% of the coverage to absurd ideas?

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