James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

Back to Articles

Which comes first, the philosophy or the egg?

THERE IS much to be said for middle-class professional life – good money, interesting enough work, public esteem and, most importantly of all, the fact that it is not necessary to be a genius to make a success of it. The law, medicine and architecture are, above all, practical occupations, and it is possible to get by without having to grapple with the big issues – Why are we here? What’s it all about? – from one year’s end to the next.

These weighty matters are rather the concern of the intellectual aristocracy of academic philosophers and theoretical biologists. When society is confronted by some ethical or moral dilemma, it is only natural to turn to these brainy types for guidance; they can apply their razor-sharp intellects to asking the awkward questions and teasing out the full implications.

Just such an ethical dilemma presented itself back in the 1980s: the technique of in-vitro fertilisation (test-tube babies) had made it possible not just to bring the joys of parenthood to the childless, but also to create human embryos in laboratories for the specific purpose of experimentation. There were many at the time who, although very much in favour of the former, were not at all keen on the latter, and clearly some sort of independent judgment was called for. That is how the philosopher Mary Warnock found herself plucked from the obscurity of being Senior Research Fellow at St Hugh’s College Oxford to chair a committee investigating the matter.

Its conclusion, as readers may recall, was that scientists should indeed be permitted to create human embryos specifically for the purpose of experimentation. But such experiments could be performed only for the first 14 days after fertilisation, as at this point a structure known as the "notochord" begins to form, which will develop into the brain and spinal cord.

This seemed reasonable enough, although it was debatable whether the knowledge to be gleaned from such experiments could not just as readily be acquired by some other means.

Mary, soon to be Baroness, Warnock’s report was accepted and its proposal enshrined in legislation.

Late last year, while idly gossiping at a party, her name came up, and someone I did not know expressed the opinion that she was "a rotten philosopher". Intrigued by this dismissive judgment, I asked the Baroness’s critic (who turned out to be a philosopher herself) to clarify her remarks, and was advised to take a critical look at her recently published work, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics. This I duly did – and was genuinely shocked by what I found.

Baroness Warnock offers three reasons for her "14-day limit" on human embryo experiments. The first, already alluded to, was that this marks the beginning of the formation of the nervous system. But this is a valueless distinction. It never has been, and never will be, possible to grow the embryo beyond this 14-day stage, as without the nutritional support of being implanted in the womb, it simply dies.

Next, Baroness Warnock claims that for the first 14 days the human embryo is known as a "pre-embryo", that is, not a proper embryo but a collection of cells with the potential to become one. Again this is not the case. "Pre-embryo" is a technical term used by botanists to describe the maturing seeds within a plant.

Third, Baroness Warnock dismisses those who might argue that the 14-day limit is arbitrary because human life begins at the moment of conception, by insisting that the sperm and egg are similarly "alive" prior to their fusion. But this is not so. It must be obvious that the "life" of a fertilised egg, with its potential to become a conscious being, is utterly different from the "life" of a sperm or egg, which will die within 72 hours if they do not fuse. In their different ways, each of the Baroness's arguments transgresses the fundamental purpose of philosophy, which is to seek the truth by making genuine rather than spurious distinctions, and by defining precisely the meaning of words.

This leaves two possibilities. Either the Baroness is so dim she does not realise the rottenness of her philosophy, or she and her committee deliberately sought to make experiments on human embryos acceptable by invoking misleading philosophical arguments.

Either way, 15 years on the fruits of such experiments are nugatory, while public morality has been further debased by the endorsement, through parliamentary legislation, of the principle that moral considerations of any sort should not be allowed to stand in the way of the pursuit of science.

There are, I am sure, a lot of very good philosophers around. They could bolster the reputation of their discipline by being a lot more critical in public of the humbug within their ranks.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd