Update On Life Issues - June 2005

Teenage Pregnancy – More Evidence of a Failing Policy
The latest official figures (released on 26 May 2005) from the Office of National Statistics show that in 2003 the rate of pregnancy among under-16 year-olds in England and Wales rose by 1%. 

While it is true that the pregnancy rate among all teenagers fell during 2003, but only by a mere 1.2%, the under-16’s rate bucked this trend.  This cheerless increase is despite the commitment, first made in 1999, by the Blair Government to halve the rate of teenage pregnancy by 2010, and despite the £140m that has been spent on ‘the problem’.  Since the introduction of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, there has been a drop in pregnancy rates from 46.6 per 1,000 girls to just 42.1 – it does not take much political or numerical savvy to reckon that the target figure of about 23 is never going to be hit by 2010. 

With the failure of its grandiose policy now clearly in sight, the Government was bound to look around for a scapegoat.  And would you Adam and Eve it? This time it is ‘the parents’ who are picked on.  In the time-honoured fashion of blame shifting (first performed by our progenitors, as recorded in Genesis 3: 8-13, and practised by every man, woman and child ever since), Beverley Hughes, the Families and Children’s Minister, has declared that the Government had ‘reached a sticking-point’ and can do no more to reduce the UK’s teenage pregnancy rate.  From now on it is upto parents to pull their weight! 

This scapegoating is a bit rich coming from a Government that has consistently undermined the role of parents by insisting that contraceptives and abortions must be provided for teenagers without either the knowledge or the consent of their parents.  Indeed, parents have effectively been sidelined by this Government’s determination to push its ‘safe sex’ campaign.  Yet, our poor children have not been ‘safe’ – indeed, they have been harmed by this Government’s attempt at value-free sex education and its incessant ‘pill and condom’ campaign.  Our children have been damaged physically, emotionally and spiritually by the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. 

For several years, many of us have been trying to get the Government to implement the only rational approach to the question of teenage pregnancy.  First, it must involve sex and relationship education within a moral framework.  The Christian model is the standard, with marriage at its centre.  Second, a proper approach must involve the teaching of abstinence. Abstinence has an unquestionable theoretical success in lowering the teenage pregnancy rate – no sex, no pregnancies.  Furthermore, there is the growing practical evidence of the success of such strategies from the US and elsewhere.  Yet our Government continues to mock the very idea of this approach.  Indeed, Beverley Hughes is adamant that parents will not be encouraged to advocate abstinence.  Meanwhile, she continues to insist that the Government ‘has done all the right things.’ But it clearly has not. 

So, Her Majesty’s Government, scrap your value-free, ‘if it feels good, do it, preferably safely’ approach. Your blinkered, ideologically-barmy Teenage Pregnancy Strategy is signally failing.  It is bound to fail.  These latest statistics mock your current policy – when will you listen to reason and change it?

Human Cloning – Two Steps Forward?
Two major so-called ‘breakthroughs’ have occurred recently.  A research group in South Korea, under the leadership of Woo Suk Hwang, has, for the first time, cloned human embryos composed of stem cells that matched the genetic characteristics of the individuals for whom they were created.  Meanwhile, in the UK, a team at Newcastle, led by Alison Murdoch, managed to clone human embryos to the blastocyst stage, that is, around 3 to 5 days. 

Both achievements were typically heralded as major steps forward in the fight against serious diseases.  Others took a different view.  For example, Dr David King, director of Human Genetic Alert said, ‘This research is both unethical and irresponsible. I am not a pro-lifer, but I still think it is wrong to create potential human life purely as a tool for research.’

Stem Cell Therapy – Hope or Hype?
The battle for minds, hearts and money over the source of stem cells, that is, embryonic versus adult, continues.  However, what is new is a more restrained form of hype from the embryonic camp.  Its members are now talking of five or even ten years before embryonic stem cells can be used to treat patients with degerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  And they are now more concerned about safety. Will embryonic stem cells be safe to use?  This concern comes from the fact that animal products are typically used to culture these cells and the fear is that prions or viruses may infect the cells – we all remember the disaster of vCJD. 

Furthermore, these human embryo experimenters have at last realised one of the major problems their technology faces.  To produce embryonic stem cells the technique of cell nuclear replacement (CNR) must be used.  This involves placing the patient’s DNA into a denucleated ovum.  Recent research has shown that such ova must be collected and used quickly – like within 15 minutes – if the technique is to be successful. Can you see where this is going?  Think of the numbers of people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (regardless of the multitudes suffering with other diseases).  Where are these hundreds of thousands of ova coming from?  A few hundred might be collected as leftovers from IVF treatments.  What will be needed are scores of dedicated women who will be willing to undergo the risks of hormonal hyperstimulation to produce the required numbers of ova.  They will be like battery hens. 

Then, as if right on cue, came news from this June’s annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to newspaper reports, a team from Sheffield University has published research that ‘could conquer infertility’.  What the research actually showed was that it could be possible that human embryonic stem cells might be able to grow into the 'precursor' cells that produce ova and sperm, as has been demonstrated, a couple of years ago, in mice.  This could mean that scientists will be able to take a cell – for example, a skin cell – from a patient who cannot produce their own gametes, and 'grow' ova or sperm in the laboratory.  This news was hyped not only as conquering infertility, but also as the answer to lesbian and gay couples wishing to have their own genetic children.  In truth, the push behind such research has little or nothing to do with infertility – it is all about obtaining a continuous supply of ova for CNR.

Assisted Reproductive Technologies – Just Where Will It All End?
There have been recent calls for all embryos used in IVF to be checked for genetic defects.  Not long ago, no preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) was permitted – after all, that would amount to eugenics, wouldn’t it?  Then PGD was allowed for serious medical reasons, then for sex selection, then for ‘saviour siblings, and now for almost anything. 

Some years ago I remember framing a really daft suggestion – one day, in the distant future, all human reproduction would be carried out via state-controlled IVF.  At puberty, girls would have their ovarian tissue removed and frozen. Similarly, boys would have their testicular material frozen.  Think of some of the benefits – no more teenage pregnancies, everyone could work longer and therefore pay more taxes.  Just a favoured few would be allowed to breed.  Selected, thawed ova would be fertilised by selected, thawed sperm by IVF, with screening at all stages to ensure only healthy offspring were produced, probably with the aid of selected surrogates.  Of course, all this screening and selecting means that some embryos and fetuses will have to be rejected and discarded, but it will be worth all the effort.  Now that is a really daft idea, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Baroness Warnock – You Are Wrong
Mary Warnock was wrong!  During the 1970s, she was the driving force behind the policy of inclusion of children with special needs into mainstream education.  She has now admitted that this course of action has failed and left ‘a disastrous legacy’. 

The truth is that Mary Warnock is hardly ever right – look what a disaster the Warnock Report (1984) has been.  It opened the floodgates for destructive human embryo experimentation, IVF, surrogacy, and so on.  It was the most unprincipled bioethical document of the twentieth century.  I hope that before she dies, she will admit she also got it wrong over the status and treatment of the human embryo. 

It must, sadly, be acknowledged that any such repentance seems unlikely.  She remains her strident self, as demonstrated by her latest pronouncement.  It is that doctors should allow/help the youngest premature babies, say those less than 24-weeks of gestation, to die.  Most doctors are opposed to the setting of any such boundary.  Nevertheless, she admires the Dutch policy of fixing an age limit, below which babies are effectively abandoned.  The Baroness seemingly has this alarming ability to provide the wrong answers to key bioethical questions.

Professor David Short – A Useful Life
Now for something much more praiseworthy. David Short died recently at the age of 86.  He was the Queen’s physician in Scotland and came to the attention of the wider public when he admitted the 15-year-old Prince Charles, suffering from pneumonia, to an Aberdeen nursing home. 

David Short was for many years a preacher and an elder at an independent Scottish church.  He was chairman of the executive committee, and later president, of the Christian Medical Fellowship.  He also served on the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee to Pro-Life members of Parliament.  He wrote several books, many of which reflected his so-called ‘muscular Christianity’.  As the Daily Telegraph recorded, ‘Firm in his faith to the end, for the epitaph on his gravestone he chose the words: “A sinner saved by grace.”’

Dr John R. Ling,
24 June 2005.

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