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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, December 01, 2006

You've got to love those irrationalists

They're at it again. As legislation to liberalise Australia's draconian laws on cloning and other reproductive technologies goes to the the lower house for debate (after narrowly passing in the Senate), we are seeing yet more hysterical, irrational opposition. One of the latest claims is that there will be a loophole because nothing will stop the creation of a zygote using the sperm of an adult man and an egg from an aborted fetus.

A letter in The Australian this morning from members of the Lockhart committee shows how misleading this is. The insemination of an egg cell to create a zygote outside a woman's body for any purpose other than reproduction is a crime that will have a 15-year jail term attached to it. The effect of this is to force the use of "spare" IVF embryos for research purposes, except where specifically provided for in the legislation. As for using IVF to create an embryo, using an egg from an aborted fetus, for reproductive purposes, there is a plethora of regulation in Australia that would rule this out. Once again we are seeing irrationalists dreaming up bizarre situations to try to oppose legislative reform through appeal to people's emotions.

That is the first point.

More fundamentally, though, if it assisted scientific research to create embryos using eggs from aborted fetuses what would actually be wrong with it? The idea stirs up emotions because of the connection with abortion, anathema for many people (though usually for irrational reasons). However, let's think about this. Who would actually be harmed by such a procedure?

The aborted fetus is already dead. Moreover, it is not as if something is happening to it after its death against its wishes while it was alive, as when someone fails to honour the terms of my will. A fetus is not the sort of entity that can have wishes about what happens after its death. I can see no other candidate for a "victim" of the conduct. In other words, we have a situation where Australia will continue to impose a penalty of fifteen years' imprisonment for a so-called "crime" that actually harms nobody and could be of use in scientific research that will ultimately yield health benefits. That is simply ridiculous.

It's about time we stopped listening to irrationalists when we formulate public policy. If reason prevails, we will see some minor liberalisation of the law in the short term, but there will still be draconian penalties against a whole range of procedures that cause no harms and should not be crimes at all. It's time to put the irrationalists who got us into this situation back in their box.

Just stop listening to them.

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