20 March 2020

Daniel Frampton

Daniel Official blog pic

Robert Winston recently addressed the controversy surrounding the pro-eugenics views of an aide who worked at No. 10 Downing Street. Writing in The Sunday Times, Winston revealed his own hypocrisy, as a leading supporter of IVF and the expendability of embryos, by claiming he was “deeply concerned” about eugenic’s and its effect on the “autonomy” of the individual. 

Not long before the Coronavirus crisis developed and drowned out all other news, Andrew Sabisky, hired by Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings, resigned after an unpleasant blog post surfaced, written by him in 2014. In it, Sabisky argued that “one way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty”.

Responding to the news story, Robert Winston commented in The Sunday Times that he was “deeply concerned that the issue of eugenics may raise its ugly head once again”.

Providing a brief history of eugenics and its advocates, the prominent medical doctor and scientist – an expert in assisted reproduction – asserted that supporters of eugenics ran “the risk of crossing a serious ethical line”.

“As doctors we are required to respect the autonomy of the people we treat, to try to do good, to try to avoid doing harm and to protect the interests of justice. But the key issue is respect for the individual. Eugenics is quite different. It does not involve paramount respect for the individual, but rather the interests of society.”

It was here that Winston revealed his hypocrisy. “Respect for the individual”, says one of Britain’s leading advocates for experiments on human embryos…

Winston’s moral dilapidation

The main thrust of Winston’s article in The Sunday Times was that “we must recognise that our most important ethical principle requires respect for the human. If we now make superhumans, what value will a human still have?”

The problem with all of this, however, is that Winston himself has not respected the human individual. Indeed, the professor belongs to a fertility industry that, despite its undoubted expertise, has repeatedly denied the essential humanity of the unborn.

Richard Dawkins is another example. He also weighed in on the recent story regarding Andrew Sabisky. Stating on Twitter that eugenics would, of course, work on human beings in practice, he deplored it on ideological, political and moral grounds.

Still, despite his posturing, claiming that eugenics ought to be reserved only for non-human organisms such as “pigs”, Dawkins has previously said on Twitter that “with respect to those meanings of ‘human’ that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any [human] fetus is less human than an adult pig”.

Again, where has the respect for the individual gone?

“Little speck of cells”

Winston does not “believe in” the humanity of a “fertilised egg”, as though a person’s humanity depends on other people’s belief rather than on the scientific evidence that a particular entity is biologically a human being. Indeed “fertilised egg” is a term often employed by those who want to disregard the overwhelming scientific evidence that at fertilisation “a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed”, as the 2nd edition of Human Embryology and Teratology puts it; or, as The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (9th edition) explains: “Human development begins at fertilisation when a sperm unites with an oocyte [ovum] to form a single cell zygote. This highly specialised, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

Also, Winston concurs with the current 14-day limit in the UK, introduced in 1990, for experimenting on human embryos. And when discussing the matter in an interview in The Telegraph, in 2007, he did not object to the Science Editor Dr Roger Highfield’s description of an embryo as a “little speck of cells”.

It should be recalled, too, that the 14-day limit for human embryo experimentation was originally recommended in the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984), also known as the Warnock Report, named after the Committee’s chairman, Dame Mary Warnock. Yet the authors of that document, the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984), admitted that 14 days was a completely arbitrary limit. They wrote:

“Once the process has begun there is no particular part of the developmental process that is more important than another […] Thus biologically there is no one single identifiable stage in the development of the embryo beyond which the in vitro embryo should not be kept alive. However, we agreed that this was an area in which some precise decision must be taken, in order to allay public anxiety.”

As Clarke and Linzey noted, in Research on Embryos: Politics, Theology and Law (1988): “this is a clear case of extrinsic criteria being used to solve a problem which requires the determination of firm and unequivocal intrinsic criteria.”

Despite Winston’s best attempts to rob embryos of their humanity, an embryo is human and worthy of protection: in possession of a complete human genome and orientated further growth and life.

Ultimately, given the arbitrary criteria used to justify a 14-day limit for human experimentation, Winston must take some responsibility for the increasing calls for the limit on embryo experimentation to be doubled to 28 days.

Manipulation of science to dehumanise the human embryo

Speaking at the Alfred Deakin Lecture series in 2001, Winston claimed that an embryo “isn’t actually a perfect human being”, that it “is a step on the way to becoming a human being in some cases”, and that “it might be better to look at it really as a potential”.

However, as Dr Anthony McCarthy puts it in Abortion Matters (2018):

“[Human embryologists] know that we are dealing with an actual human life from the time of conception. If we were somehow to watch a human sperm swimming vigorously towards a human egg, we just might say that we could see a potential life in the making. But once the two have united to create an entirely new human being, neither the life nor its human character is merely potential. The young human being has, as we have seen, an actual life, not a ‘potential’ life. He or she has a real life ‘with potential’.”

And what is a “perfect human”? Even if one takes account of the word “potential”, the identification of a person as less than perfect or less than human comes dangerously close to the thinking of some of the most infamous eugenicists and politicians of the 20th century.  

Nevertheless, at the 2001 talk, Winston justified the high “wastage” rate of embryos in in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) by likening it to nature:

“If you take one hundred human embryos in an in-vitro fertilisation program, for example, only about eighteen of them will end up actually as a baby, as a foetus. The rest perish and perish naturally for all sorts of different reasons. It is probable that it isn’t actually very different in nature.”

But it does not follow that the fragility of a person means they are essentially disposable.

If we are to follow Winston’s logic through to its full conclusion, shouldn’t doctors be allowed to perform experiments on stage 4 oesophageal cancer patients (without their consent) because of their poor survival rate?

A culture of discard and death

In his 2001 talk, Winston even slipped in the word “expendable” when describing the “extraordinary fragility of the human embryo”, saying that “some of the reasons why the embryo seems to be expendable are due to the lining of the uterus, the endometrium”.

Note the sleight of hand here.

Winston is playing a card game and is not against bringing out another card from his sleeve when he thinks the other players are not looking.  

In other words, Professor Lord Winston, along with other noted scientists, such as Dawkins, has contributed to a culture of discarding expendable human beings that is so much a feature of eugenics, and which he claims to be so “deeply concerned” about in his article in The Sunday Times.