As humanists, we are committed to scientific endeavour and to the maximisation of human happiness and welfare from advances in medical science.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, humanity began to uncover many new medical advances with the potential to change our lives for the better – from in-vitro fertilisation treatments benefiting many kinds of couples, to the use of embryonic stem cells to cure diseases.
On these issues, scientists’ efforts are often impeded by the campaigning of religious activists who have strong views about the ‘sanctity’ of the human body, ‘playing god’, or the appropriate use of human tissues.
We believe that the decision as to whether to permit any such research should be based entirely on principled ethical considerations, not religious points. We want the primary ethical consideration in scientific matters to be benefit to human beings and other living creatures.
We also speak out on issues that relate to the treatment of human remains in the face of campaigns on similar religious complaints. We believe that human remains found in archaeological excavations should be treated respectfully. However, we support scientists, museums, and researchers in their quest for knowledge and aspiration to educate. We do not want to see unique or significant collections of human remains lost, or research scuppered, as a result of complaints from distant living relatives or religious bodies.
In 2015, the Church of England campaigned against Government regulations amending the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that sought to legalise mitochondrial replacement therapy, enabling women carrying diseases in their mitochondrial genes to give birth without such diseases by using a third party donor’s disease-free egg (combined with the non-mitochondrial genetic material of the mother’s egg) in getting pregnant. This was dubbed as ‘three-parent babies’. Nonetheless MPs voted overwhelmingly to legalise the therapy.
Similarly, in 2008 religious campaigners attempted to have the same Act amended to legislate against treating same-sex couples equally to heterosexual couples in access to fertility treatment, to reduce the number of weeks into pregnancy that women are able to access abortion and to restrict stem cell research. The Roman Catholic Church in particular lobbied very hard on this Act using emotive misinformation about its contents and aims and putting pressure on Catholic MPs to follow the Church’s, rather than the Government’s, position. However, they were voted against in the House of Commons, reflecting the rational, scientific and ethical approach to these matters by the majority of MPs.
Any research using human tissues should be based on scientific evidence and facts, taking into account ethical considerations, such as the quality of life of the individual person.
What we’re doing
We continue to lobby government on related issues, aiming to ensure any amendments to current legislation or any new legislation in this area are based on scientific evidence and not religious views, as such issues arise. The law in this area is currently strong but as medical technology evolves, the law periodically needs revising, and we are aware to this fact.
Humanists UK consults with its members on human tissues, human remains, and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our campaigns.
You can also research and take up these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.
You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.