OPINION | Sunday, 25 November 2007

Ideology 1, Science 0


It was a sad sight really. There they were, the four local champions of the unborn: Anglu Farrugia, looking decidedly uncomfortable in the shining suit of armour he borrowed for the occasion; Dr Tonio Borg, exuding smugness like a dog who’s just been praised by his beloved master; Dr Michael Axiak, the man who once responded to an article of mine by telling me to shut up, because he is a “scientist” and therefore knows best; and Franco Galea, who I suspect was there for comic relief.
And towering above the lot of them – in importance, if not in height – their natural born mentor: Paul Vincenti, the pro-life campaigner who has finally succeeded in making a total mockery of our already discredited House of Representatives, and to reduce them to an extension of his own Gift of Life Foundation.

The petition – 36,010 signatures in all – will be tabled in parliament on Monday. What happens next is not for me to say, but judging how the “debate” has proceeded so far, I’m not optimistic that common sense will prevail.
Far from it: my hunch is that Opposition leader Alfred Sant – who has held out heroically against all this lunacy for the past two years, rising in my esteem even as Dr Gonzi has plummeted – will finally capitulate in the face of the most heinous act of political blackmail this country has witnessed since the 1960s.
There is a chance I might be proved wrong. Maybe Dr Sant will live up to his reputation as the owner of the hardest head in the Western Hemisphere, and will redeem himself for past shortcomings by blocking this wholesale regression to pre-enlightenment theocracy. But I must say, it’s not looking likely.

Back to the presentation. At one point I asked Tonio Borg a question, but it was Dr Michael Axiak who replied – the PN deputy leader being plainly at a loss. And yet it was a simple question, concerning the wording of the proposed amendment: “No person shall intentionally be deprived of his life from conception”.
Considering that world scientific opinion is divided on the issue of whether a “person” actually exists at conception – many arguing that personhood is a quality which emerges later in the process – wouldn’t this be tantamount to inserting an ambiguity into the Constitution?
Not according to the chairman of the bioethics commission, who claims there are two basic criteria by which human personhood is established. The first is physiological, and the second is… theological.

That’s right, the word he used was “theological”. Which is strange, because last I looked, “theology” was an academic discipline concerning itself exclusively with the existence and nature of God. Please note: God, not Man.
Now I am aware that some people are unable to distinguish between the two – arrogating unto themselves all the authority and omniscience commonly associated with the former, while treating the latter much like an inferior species of maggot – but honestly: this is the chairman of the parliamentary bioethics commission we’re talking about here. Is it so unreasonable to expect a scientific, as opposed to praeternatural, assessment of the origins of human personhood?

Coming from Dr Michael Axiak, the comment is meticulously revealing for another reason. This is after all the same person who wrote an article in The Sunday Times some weeks ago, in which he accused the Warnock Commission – the authors of the report which underpins abortion legislation in the UK – of being “ideologically motivated”.
The Warnock Commission, you see, committed the mortal sin of disagreeing with official Catholic doctrine regarding the origins of human individuality. It concluded that the earliest point we can talk of an individual human person was the incidence of the primitive streak: the rudiments of the human nervous system which first appear at 14 days of pregnancy.
This, Dr Axiak alleged, was a politically engineered conclusion to permit the legalisation of abortion in the United Kingdom.

That is to say the least rich, coming from the author of a “scientific study” so bizarre, and so obviously orchestrated to serve a specific ideological aim, that the same commission which concocted it ended up having to perform the scientific equivalent of contortionism to defend its bogus conclusions.
Allow me to explain. In a report presented to the government in 2005, the commission chaired by Dr Michael Axiak settled for “pro-nuclear syngamy” as the likeliest moment of origin of the human person. Pro-nuclear syngamy occurs between 20 and 24 hours after fertilisation: a little later than the “penetration” moment the Catholic Church recommends, but a great deal sooner than the 14-day interpretation favoured by the Warnock Commission.
This sounds like a compromise to me… and “compromise” is a word I associate with politics, not with science. And to cap it all, pro-nuclear syngamy comes at a point when “legal abortion”, although theoretically possible, is utterly impractical. But, lo and behold! It also keeps that all-important 24-hour window open for in vitro fertilization to remain nice and legal: by a huge coincidence, the way most Malta’s doctors want it to be.
Does any of this sound scientific to you? Because from where I’m standing it looks a whole lot like an ideologically motivated bit of fluff.

But of course, it was never likely that the bioethics commission would pull off such a spectacular stunt without sooner or later tripping up in its own shoelaces.
So shortly after having established that there is no human person in the womb before a point which occurs some 20 - 24 hours after fertilisation, the same committee went on to ban the morning after pill: a contraceptive agent which is usually taken up to a maximum of 12 hours after intercourse, at a point when pro-nuclear syngamy cannot possibly have taken place.
In other words, Dr Michael Axiak engineered things in such a way to ban a contraceptive method on the grounds that it is tantamount to killing a human being, after the same Dr Michael Axiak had already established that there can be no human being to kill at the point in time when this same method is meant to be used.

How much scientific sense does this make? None at all. In fact, going only on the published conclusions of the bio-ethics committee, the morning after pill should be perfectly legal in this country, available over the counter just like a packet of condoms.
But it is not, which can only mean one thing: that the bio-ethics commission was motivated by purely ideological concerns; and that its report was cooked up specifically to achieve a declared unscientific end: to ban all “abortive” forms of contraception on purely ideological grounds, but at the same time legitimise IVF, thereby allowing private hospitals to carry on making buckets of money.

So much, I suppose, for science as opposed to ideology. And so much also for any hope that our 65 MPs – with one or two possible exceptions – would resist what is likely to be the last, desperate act of an unelected Prime Minister: a man so utterly bereft of ideas, that his only contribution to date has been the revival of religious fundamentalism… and even then, for his own purely selfish ends.
How sad, that we should have come to this.

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