Friday 12 August 2011

More or less human..?

Hollywood and  a  prominent scientific body are both addressing the issue of bio-medical ethics in very different ways this summer.  Both are highlighting  the issues behind the use of human tissue and DNA in animals for research.

Predictably, the Hollywood approach in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'  (released in the UK this week) treads the well worn apocalyptic  route - the scientific creation of a 'more human' ape which is then mistreated and rebels, leading to a battle between humans and apes for world supremacy.

The Academy of Medical Sciences, on the other hand, is calling for better regulation on the increasing use of human material in animals for medical research.  This is necessary, they argue, otherwise  we might find ourselves faced with a scientific 'fete accompli' of genetic hybrids with increasingly human attributes.
In short, the creation of a mice with 'human' livers is one thing (and already exists) but an ape with a 'human' brain would be quite different.

Potentially this is a huge issue.  As genetic and stem cell research develops, the ethical issues about using human material in animal research raises significant moral, theological and ethical questions for the human race.  The definition of what constitutes a 'human being' may in time come under increasing scrutiny if elements of 'personhood'  in animals are artificially developed in such experiments.
And yet the ethics of making animals 'more human' seems to make few waves in the Church.  The Church of England did contribute to the Academy's consultation last year, although my guess is that few people are aware of the document, never mind its conclusions.  (Find it at

The Church's response to the Academy takes a pragmatic approach.  It considers possible definitions of what constitutes a human being as well as potential issues of 'personhood' in relation to developing animal research.  It concludes that most current experiments would seem to be ok, but there is a line to be drawn when we create something which is more human than animal (wherever that line might be).  It seems to be ok to make animals 'more human' as long as we don't go too far.  The response is measured, sensible, and well argued, despite the fact that the balance it tries to establish will not engender universal agreement among Christians.

When I compare this to the church's debate of homosexuality, I find a huge contrast.

Unlike bio-genetic research, the church's position on homosexuality makes huge waves, and it is not at all pragmatic.   While giving the green light to making animals 'more human' , the church's response to homosexuals is to make them 'less human'.  It does this by telling them that God requires them to set aside a fundamental part of their humanity -  their longing to give and receive love in a mutual intimate relationship with someone they love.  The potential for such relationships is at the very heart of what it means to be human and when we deny LGB&T people this possibility, we reduce their humanity in the name of God.

In short -  the Church of England seems to think that it is ok to make animals more human, but not ok for homosexuals to be fully human.

The irony is that many of the issues which the Church of England has grappled with in human/animal experiments resonate clearly with the Church's ongoing e debate on sexuality!

In its response to the Academy, the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England deals with the question of what is considered 'natural' or 'unnatural' by noting that:

'Research may challenge some of our most fundamental beliefs and presuppositions but this is not sufficient reason to prohibit or to restrict it.'
and yet there are many Christians today who continue to regard homosexual relationships as 'unnatural' despite evidence to the contrary and the Church colludes with this world-view.

It goes on to say that.. 

Many scientific or medical techniques and practices that most people currently accept, such as organ transplantation or the use of psychiatric drugs were once widely deemed to be unacceptable because they challenged prevalent interpretations of human identity and personality. Fundamental beliefs may, at times, act as an initial defence mechanism against untrammelled experimentation but it is correct to challenge such beliefs and to engage in thoroughgoing discussion with regard to their veracity and significance.
and yet the Church has not allowed such an open approach to developing understandings around perceptions of sexuality.

The response also considers other concerns  which resonate with debates over sexuality, namely that such experiments on animals

·         will lead to moral or societal confusion

·         is an affront to human dignity

These concerns are often raised by those opposed to the acceptance and blessing of same-sex relationships, and yet the CofE considers none of these to be insurmountable in bio-genetic research.  So why are they insurmountable when it comes to allowing LGB&T people to express their humanity fully?

Perhaps this confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the role of God's laws.   I recently heard an evangelical theological college lecturer teach that "God's laws are there to make us more fully human". 

If this is the basic premise, then those opposed to blessing same-sex relationships can claim that obeying laws against same-sex acts makes homosexuals more human, not less.

But there is a fundamental error in this understanding of God's law.

It is God who makes us fully human at our creation in the womb - we are all born fully human irrespective of obedience or not to God's laws - and anything which is fully human cannot be made more fully human!   The purpose of God's law is to enable us to express that humanity fully in our interactions with God and others.  We can see this in Jesus' statement that loving God and our neighbour is the heart of the God's law. (Matthew 22:34-40) and in Paul's radical statement in Romans that 'love is the fulfilment of the Law'. (Romans 13:10)

So the test of any of the many laws we find in the Bible (often written in the context of specific cultures and points in history) is whether they enable us to express our humanity more fully , or whether they reduce it.  The experience of the vast majority of LGB&T people is that setting aside or denying their sexuality reduces their ability to truly express the fullness of their humanity. 

Should we allow unbridled experiments on animals using human tissue or DNA in the name of science?   Like the Church of England - I think not.

Should we continue to lessen the humanity of LGB&T people by telling them that God wants them to live in way which sets aside their sexuality?  Unlike the Church of England -  I think not.

And perhaps there is a wider issue here as well - that while the church continues to dehumanise LGB&T people, we lessen our right to be heard on other issues of humanity - and that is not a path we should follow.