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  For a human-centred morality
By Ann Furedi

'Science v morals'. That was the way nearly every news commentator described this week's UK House of Lords debate on embryo research. And you can sense that this is exactly how many in the media see this debate. Nasty practical science that we really wish we didn't have to tolerate, pitted against high-minded ethical ideals. Even those who are in favour of new scientific research betray a sense of ethical unease and a need to apologise for being pragmatic.

But it is about time we stopped indulging the various bishops, rabbis and other reactionaries and Luddites in the myth that they occupy the moral high ground in this debate. And it's about time scientists stopped their sheepish apologies and made a robust defence of their actions.

I can think of little that is more moral than struggling to develop science, with the aim of relieving human suffering. The claim 'I was striving to advance human knowledge' should be regarded as a stout ethical defence, not an apology.

When cutting-edge researchers, like controversial embryologist Simon Fishel, face themselves in the mirror, they know they have not only alleviated the suffering of individuals but that they have also contributed to a science that can take humanity forward. Presumably the self-appointed moral guardians feel a greater rush of self-righteous self-pride for trying to save our souls - but I know to whom I accord moral worth.

I am amazed at how the myth that science is running ahead of social debate is spat out time and time again by columnist after columnist. Far from it: the media spends so much time debating the rights and wrongs of embryo experimentation and reproductive technology that every commuter on my regular train into London has a view about stem cell research.

When faced with the argument that science is going too fast and that there are not enough safeguards, we should argue that, on the contrary, we are progressing too slowly and it is both immoral and unethical to allow conservatism to fetter the developments that could benefit us all.

Those who truly have no morals are those who would turn their backs on the human suffering that disease and illness causes, and hide behind principles that do not allow humanity to make genuine ethical choices. It is far easier to adopt the absolute principle that human life is sacred from conception than it is to venture on the slippery path of deciding how the potential humanity of an embryo should be balanced against the need for research.

It would be far preferable if, in debates such as these, scientists adopted the compelling arrogance of Professor John Harris, who dismisses out of hand the concern that, once on a slippery slope, you slide inexorably to the bottom. He reminds us that, as every skier knows, slippery slopes are not to be avoided but to be skilfully negotiated.

The proof of true moral worth is the ability, and the willingness, to attempt that negotiation. By exercising our own moral capability, and valuing that of others, we demonstrate our humanity.

This article appears on the new, comment-based website, Spiked http://www.spiked-online.com
 
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