British biologist Robert Edwards, who developed the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF), has won a Nobel Prize. But the Vatican says the choice of Professor Edwards was “completely out of order.”
This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to Robert Edwards, who spent much of his career at Cambridge University. Along with Patrick Steptoe, Edwards developed IVF as a response to human infertility. The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978, and since then about 4 million babies have been brought into the world using the technique, enabling many couples to achieve their goals of becoming biological parents.
In response, Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, the Vatican’s bioethics spokesman, has made the arrogant statement that the Nobel prize committee’s choice of Professor Edwards was “completely out of order”; the problem, according to the Vatican, is that many human embryos end up being destroyed as a result of the creation of excess embryos during IVF.
This is, of course, a typically foolish statement by the Vatican. The embryos concerned are tiny dots of protoplasm that are totally unlike an adult human being, a child, or even a fetus that has undergone a period of development in the womb. These little dots are incapable of feeling pain, having any instinct to protect themselves, or possessing any other form of sentience. They possess no fear of being destroyed and experience no suffering when they are destroyed, and no one who is capable of suffering has bonded with them in the slightest. The destruction of these very small collections of cells does no harm to families or the social fabric. There is no reason for them to be protected by our moral norms and sentiments or by the law.
In short, there is no reason based on social welfare or the welfare of sentient beings why we should regret the destruction of tiny embryos created through IVF; there is no reason to condemn it morally, or attempt to prevent it by law. There is even less reason to regret the destruction of these embryos than to regret early-term abortions. The Vatican’s morality is not based on anything rational but on recondite ideas of natural law, the will of God, and the ensoulment of non-sentient life. It puts human happiness below its bizarre and miserable version of morality.
And of course, this shows exactly why the Vatican’s claims to moral authority must be questioned constantly. If the Vatican hierarchs had their way, much that is good in human life would be condemned morally and even legally prohibited - make no mistake, the Vatican presses wherever it can for the law to impose its views by force.
The Vatican regularly calls for moral condemnations and legal prohibitions, based on its understanding of transcendent purposes acting in the universe. Very well, it is entitled to do that - I respect its freedom of speech. But when it does so, we are entitled to reply by asking whether its understandings have any truth to them. Does its God even exist? Is its tradition of moral teaching divinely guided, or is it all too human and flawed? Why shouldn’t we condemn the Vatican, in our turn, when its bizarre worldview stands in the way of ordinary human happiness and reasonable aspirations?
Mightn’t the world be better without this anachronistic institution constantly telling us how to run our lives? I’m not suggesting that the Vatican be shut down by force, but I do suggest that the time has well and truly arrived for its total marginalisation. In particular, governments should ignore it, and the more sensible and humane members of its congregations should leave the pews and find themselves another church.