Lisa Jardine on life and death

The new chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority did not seek a fight, but she is r

"It's because of loyalty, really, that I don't talk about orthodoxies of any kind," says Lisa Jardine, explaining why she does not want a fight against Catholicism. The loyalty is to the Orthodox Jewish faith that both her parents' families observed "all the way back to whenever - Abraham". A woman of no religious faith, Jardine admits: "It's a sort of awesome admission, that you've ruptured that continuity."

The daughter of the scientist Jacob Bronowski, famed for his television series The Ascent of Man and appearances on the BBC's Brains Trust, Lisa Jardine was raised in a milieu of those who had turned their back on organised religion in reaction to the Holocaust. But she was exposed to plenty of faith as a child, and she has vivid recollections of its occasional "shocking inhumanity".

"I saw my just-bar mitzvahed cousin reduced to tears by the rabbi in the funeral service for his mother - who'd died of breast cancer at 55 - because he couldn't say the prayers right. I don't need religion," she says, a gentle smile overlaying the bitter sentiment. "Have another chocolate."

We are sitting at the kitchen table in her home, an airy, book-lined Bloomsbury penthouse remote from the jostle and bustle of nearby Oxford Street. Lisa Jardine is comfortable, confiding in large jumper and stay-at-home clothes, a little tired from recent medical treatment (she is in remission from breast cancer) but keen to talk. She may have sought no fight, but the overwhelmingly Christian opposition to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill going through parliament has picked one with her, if by default. At the beginning of April, the Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, former Booker Prize chair, councillor of the Royal Institution and prolific broadcaster, writer and commentator became chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the regulatory body tasked with overseeing the areas covered by the new bill.

Jardine didn't even have time to settle into the role before the attacks began. Hybrid embryos, "saviour siblings", the role of fathers in IVF and amendments on abortion limits all provided plenty of issues on which temperatures could, and did, rise. At the end of March, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, condemned the bill's proposals as "a public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion", and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, said that all denominations of Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, should object to what he called "species-bending". The comments were a long way from the tolerance and inquiry of Erasmus and Bacon, on whom Jardine has written studies, or from the 17th-century Anglo-Dutch pluralism she outlines in her latest book, Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory.

As the bill approached the House of Commons, others joined in. The columnist Simon Jenkins, himself a former member of the HFEA, bemoaned the body's decision to ban women from selling their eggs for money, a factor he said that had contributed to the necessity of creating hybrid embryos.

Some MPs questioned whether the stem cells thus provided were needed. Wouldn't stem cells from umbilical cords, or even adult skin stem cells, do instead? "They don't understand science," says Jardine. I mention Ann Widdecombe as one who has advanced the latter view. "Right, well . . ." she begins and then succinctly explains how embryonic stem cells are "potentially the most valuable source of genetic understanding" in developing cells with the ability not just to arrest illness, but to reverse it. "It's completely magical."

This conflict, however, is not just about the details of one bill. It is about the role of conscience, and the competing claims of science and religion to guide it. In fact, Jardine says she was taken aback that the churches chose this field of battle for an offensive. "When I heard that sermon on Frankenstein monsters my first response was shock," she says. The cardinals were against embryological research and IVF treatment anyway, she points out. "That's the position. But to intervene with a technical piece of legislation in highly emotive, emotionally charged terms just seems to me a surprise."

Rulings and denunciations

As for the Catholic view on hybrids, which will not be allowed to live beyond 14 days, but whose creation the Church still considers to be an intolerable meddling with human life: "It was only relatively recently that the date at which the soul enters the embryo was moved back to fertilisation. St Augustine believed that it happened when the baby kicked in the womb - 17 weeks - and that suited for a very long time.

"This isn't conscience, this is Church ruling." (Pope Pius IX removed the distinction between "unformed" and "formed" foetuses in 1869; prior to that, a number of theologians, including Thomas Aquinas as well as Augustine, accepted that "ensoulment" occurred later than conception.) The bishops' denunciations of hybrids made her sad, she says, because "that ought to be so much within their territory of conscience. The only reason research scientists are using animal eggs is because we believe, as a matter of conscience, that there is such a shortage of human eggs that they should all be available for reproduction."

So when does she think that this mysterious, key stage of life, whatever one calls it, begins? "I think I need consciousness - I've a little bit of a philosophical temperament - and we're a hell of a way from consciousness at 14 days." She adds: "The moment of fertilisation is not a very helpful moment to begin talking about the sanctity of human life. As a woman who's had a long childbearing life, I know perfectly well that any number of embryos were swept away. Maybe [some] naturally, but some of them weren't. Sometimes I'd jumped up and down in the hope that I wasn't pregnant, you know?"

It is a typically open admission from this warm, wise woman whose career has been spent sharing knowledge rather than merely seeking the plaudits of her academic peers.

Perhaps the chance to influence votes on amendments restricting abortion was something the churches felt they could not pass up. "One in seven couples will have trouble conceiving," says Jardine. "This bill is about helping them. For it to contain a clause about abortion seems to me to be tragic."

Jardine claims to be surprised at the churches' reaction. I tell her I'm surprised that she is surprised. For many religions - and especially today, when hardline or more strictly orthodox faiths are gaining ground - to obey conscience is not about deciding whether to follow edicts from the pulpit; it is simply to follow those edicts, regardless of whatever temporal authority has to say about it. "I think it's not correct for any church to suggest that they have a monopoly on conscience," she says. "There is a debate to be had, a serious debate, about conscience."

There may well be. But if for many religions now the exercise of conscience consists in "freely" conforming to the certainties they preach, then moral "doubt" is something to struggle with, and to conquer. "I would like to say something about doubt," says Jardine. "One of the things that has happened in this discussion is that senior members of the Church have suggested that science is about certainty and that the place of the Church is therefore to introduce doubt. That, as science pushes the boundaries of knowledge, it behoves the Church to keep the idea of sceptical doubt, the conscience, in play. I deny that this is the prerogative of the churches."

Experimental science, she says, "tests theories against evidential bases, which never prove with certainty". It is about "negotiating the boundaries of doubt. We've seen many times through history scientists have been ready to introduce doubt where they've been worried about the ethical implications of what they're doing."

Hubristic people

So often, though, I say, science is not presented in a way that admits that element of uncertainty. I raise the instance of Daniel Dennett, an atheist philosopher much concerned with neuroscience, who told me in an interview for the New Statesman two years ago: "When it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town."

"But, there are very . . ." she begins. "The number of people who insist there is no god are very few. None of us have those certainties. The Richard Dawkinses of this world are really minute. They are the five or six most hubristic people on the planet, aren't they?"

Lisa Jardine has her own answer to the citadels of faith. "My church is education," she says. "It's no accident that I work in the period 1500-1700, which is the time when mass education altered the face of Europe for the better. Individual conscience is something you can't have unless you've been taught the autonomy of decision-making. I have to believe that education will take people beyond regulatory religion. That's why I go on teaching. I still teach because I believe every single person you educate, you help take moral decisions for themselves, rather than be told the rules. I have to believe it."

It is astonishing how much her father's daughter Lisa Jardine is. Teacher, writer, humanist: the descriptions fit them both. Take these two quotations: "I grew up to be indifferent to the distinction between literature and science, which in my teens were simply two languages for experience that I learned together"; and "I have never understood the difference between the arts and the sciences or felt the need to choose between them". The first was Jacob Bronowski, the second Jardine. Or this: "Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible." The words are Bronowski's; they could as well be his daughter's.

When I ask if her belief in a universal morality that supersedes nation and faith came from her early study of Francis Bacon, she replies: "No. It's embarrassing for a feminist to say, but it was influenced by my father. My parents were enormous optimists and espousers of progress. What greater privilege than to grow up in that context and be raised with the most profound sense of moral responsibility and obligation towards the rest of humanity? I don't think that makes me representative, but that's where I came from."

And Jardine is more than ready to exercise that responsibility as head of the HFEA, a job she jokingly describes herself as having "spent the past 40 years preparing for". Talking about trust in science, I had mentioned a story in the papers about a new mother who thought her placenta was being used for medical research, only to discover it might have been used to develop cosmetics. "Well, that's a very good example," says Jardine. "What was missing was the regulator. That hospital placenta use was not regulated."

This is the HFEA's role. "There are over 40,000 in vitro fertilisations each year and we monitor every single one. It's already taken me three months just to get to grips with all our codes and regulations, and there are still some I don't understand. I mean, we even regulate the air quality in a room in which a gamete is transferred from petri dish to petri dish."

She ends with a declaration of intent. "I'm the chair of the regulator, and I'm standing up to be counted: trust me to make sure nobody uses your placenta for research into make-up." That strays slightly beyond her remit. But if we have to rely on someone to sort through the ethical quandaries posed by new science, many will agree that we have a sure guide in Lisa Jardine. By her very uncertainty, we should be reassured.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?