On temporality

I’ve just spent a week in Florence; I’m not telling you this to suggest an itinerary of things to see, should you go, or to check off against your own experience. What I might appreciate and find of interest may or may not appeal to you. So, to inform you that Michelangelo’s David is exquisite, Cellinni’s bronze Perseus is arresting, Titian’s Venus of Urbine is alluring (yes, Renaissance art can arouse, but that’s just me), etc, is not really my point here – go and see for yourself.

The evening before departing, I attended a Passion for Life rally held on campus here at Southampton, and meekly sat and listened to a panel, chaired by Nola Leach (Chief Executive of CARE) and including Lord Alton of Liverpool and Ann Widdecombe MP, raising awareness of the HFEA bill currently being passaged through parliament. This in itself is a good idea, being as the public is largely ignorant of the role and workings of the HFEA. Note, however, this was a rally, not a debate, and was akin to being in church: praying, collection, singing. It essentially preached to the predominantly combed-over and blue-rinsed converted, calling for action against the bill’s sanctioning of scientific research that those in attendance were, in the main, already set against, as they are against abortion, an issue closely intertwined with human embryonic stem cell research in the pro-life psyche. This yielded statements both outrageous, such as Nola Leach’s likening of abortion to the Holocaust, and pertinent, such as Lord Alton’s point that, after ten years of human embryonic stem cell research, not one therapy – not one – has resulted. Ten years is, indeed, quite a long time, and a lot of money has been spent. Research is a slow, expensive process.

So, onto Firenze. You may have gathered, particularly if you visit this blog from time to time (do I hear a cry in the void?), that I’m not a religious person. However, one of the things I like to do when travelling in the Old World is to visit churches, cathedrals, museums of religious art, and the like. One thing that always fascinates me is the time these things took to build. The Santa Maria del Fiore took 140 years before consecration (not completion; that took even longer). Hence, those involved in the inception and early construction of such projects knew full well that they would not live to see their glorious fruition. Presumably, faith compensates through the guaranteed passage to a first-class seat in the afterlife. These things were built to last, but would always require attention and maintenance and upkeep: the recent restoration of the Santa Maria del Fiore cupola frescoes (more on these later) took seventeen years. This is all good for local economies: it pulls in gaping tourists, such as yours truly, and camera-clicking Japanese by the bus-load. So, centuries later these things still provide jobs and livelihoods, for a purpose that was – and still is for many – considered a worthwhile endeavour.

On a more temporal scale, one of the goals of hESC research and associated fields is to seek the means of improving our brief, and not uncommonly blighted, three score and ten. Therapeutically, it may ultimately prove futile, but that is not its only raison d’être. Alton suggests that hESC research is a waste of time and money, and unethical. But it is providing crucial insight into human developmental processes, and providing jobs, studentships and valuable training for a generation of future scientists, many of whom will take their acquired experience on to other pragmatic and utilitarian problems. In the meantime, religion will go on tapping the public purse trying to convince us all that, whatever our earthly plight, we may live forever in paradise. “Scientific conceit”, said Lord Alton.

The Passion for Life rally is informative and good points are made. Raising awareness is important, whatever your philosophical disposition. Abortion is indeed a sensitive, difficult issue; however, advocating a woman’s right to choose does not equate to unethical flippancy or disregard for human life. (Anyone knows that a newborn baby can’t walk, so a foetus in the womb certainly can’t, as was emotively alluded to by members of the panel.) hESC research is a separate issue – but usually not so to the pro-lifers, who tend to overlook the fact that the adult stem cells they laud as miracle cure-alls are actually better termed ‘post-embryonic’, being as some are derived from aborted foetuses. And, although it is a hackneyed question, it is still worth posing: what should be done with the multitudinous IVF-produced frozen ‘embryos’ that will never be implanted?

Religion has given us wonderful art that we can still appreciate, whilst attempting to comprehend a different time’s predominating worldview (although there are only so many Madonna and Child s, Adoration of the Magi s and Coronation of the Virgin s that I can take in). However, it is not necessary to the living of a moral life, nor should it constitute the default basis for bioethics. The Renaissance was a time of great artistic and architectural innovation. Unfortunately, it seems some of us have still not moved on since then.

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