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By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Two rather interesting and welcome stories have hit the headlines in as many days that I thought I’d bring up here.

The first bit of news is that from next week, for the first time, an abortion advisory service is to screen an advert on TV in Britain. Centred around the slogan ‘Are you late?’ the commercial will advertise the services of the organisation Marie Stopes, which offers advice on sexual health matters, including abortion services.

Abortion has been legal in Britain since the Abortion Act of 1967, but Marie Stopes is adamant that there is a need to promote sexual health issues. “Clearly there are hundreds of thousands of women who want and need sexual health information and advice, and access to services.” (source)

Unsurprisingly this has been met by a backlash from pro-life organisations who insist that the advert will be promoting abortion. The campaign Pro-Life had this to say: “The purpose of an abortion commercial is clearly to ‘sell’ abortion and it will not provide full information about foetal development, the abortion procedure itself, the health risks which abortion poses for women, let alone the alternatives to abortion.” (source) While religious organisations are more hysterical. “These adverts will just mean more women will end up on the abortion industry conveyor belt,” said the Christian Medical Fellowship. “Getting an abortion is not like buying soap powder, and it shouldn’t be advertised on TV,” said the Christian Institute. (source)

I for one, however, am delighted at the news. This is more than about advertising a particular helpline – it is about introducing the topic of sexual health into the public domain and breaking through this taboo topic. It is about power and control. It is about shame and repression.

While the media is absolutely awash with images of a superhuman ideal of female perfection, marketing everything from cosmetics to operations to endow youth and beauty, actual frank discussion about sexual health is still woefully sparse. If organisations which promote impartial advice on such matters are not to be advertised, then how are women to know about them? How are they to know the options if faced with an unplanned pregnancy?

Presumably pro-life groups would prefer it if women never knew about such organisations – and never needed to. Women should never have sex unless they intend to get pregnant and then should turn into good little breeding machines.

Granted I haven’t actually SEEN the advert. For all I know it might be the tasteless promotion of cheerful abortion Pro-Life and the Christian Institute envisage. But I doubt it. I am confident this is nothing more than an impartial advisory service offering their services. And its presence encourages open debate on a sensitive subject. I applaud this and certainly intend to tune in to watch its first screening (Monday 24th May, Channel 4, 22.10, to those who want to do the same).

The second news item is that US scientists, led by Dr Craig Venter has developed a cell controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. He and his team had already succeeded in transplanting a genome from one bacterium into another, and in creating a synthetic bacterial genome, but this is the first time they have combined the two already remarkable achievements. (source)

The potential of this breakthrough is massive. This could be the start of gigantic leaps in the fields of medicine, biology, and even climate change. It is also another milestone reached by dedicated scientists doing empirical research into unlocking the mysteries of life itself.

As the religious right never tire of reminding us, we don’t know exactly how life started or works. We do not have all the answers. Yet we are making progress. Scientific investigation based on methodological naturalism and materialism is yielding results. Answers are being uncovered. And those who care about human progress should rejoice that we are one step nearer to an answer which will never be found just by sitting around in slack-jawed bewilderment at how complex everything is and concluding magic fills in the gaps in our knowledge.

The rather tepid reaction to scientific progress was demonstrated well by the Vatican’s response to the news. While, to their credit, Catholic church officials praised the pioneering scientists, they tempered this with words of caution. “Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity,” warned one. “In the wrong hands, today’s development can lead tomorrow to a devastating leap in the dark,” cautioned another. (source)

So it’s, ‘Well done on getting us this far, but think twice before you take us any further’, is it? How encouraging.

While outraged accusations of ‘playing God’ and visions of the imminent zombie apocalypse inevitably accompany the experiment, I am left wondering if there has ever been a significant scientific achievement that was NOT met with such cries? Were we ‘playing God’ when we performed the first organ transplant? When we discovered antibiotics? When we drew up the periodic table? When we discovered how to make fire?

Yes, new technology always needs to be handled with caution. But that is no reason to be afraid of it. Science puts the ‘ability’ in ‘responsability’ (if you spell it wrong).