Before I forget

8:27 am - April 1st 2008

by Kate Smurthwaite    

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Before my granddad died, he suffered for around nine years with Alzheimer’s. The worst thing wasn’t the forgetting things, the not recognising people or the needing round-the-clock care. The worst symptom of Alzheimer’s was the depression.

He knew he was a burden to those who cared for him, he knew what was happening to him and it broke his heart every day.

Important research into potential treatments for Alzheimer’s include research on the use of stem cells harvested from blastocysts – clusters of pre-embryonic cells. At present such research is slowed considerably by the limited supply of such blastocysts, which are made using donated human eggs. The egg donation process is non-trivial and involves a woman taking fertility drugs to cause the eggs to mature and then having them surgically extracted.

However brilliant scientists have come up with a way to create very similar blastocysts using eggs extracted from large mammals, like cows. Obviously this allows many more eggs to be harvested and thus many more blastocysts created and available to researchers. Here’s the catch, since the blastocyst has 100% human cell DNA but with bovine mitocondrial DNA it’s technically “a part human, part animal” hybrid, which scientists are legally not allowed to create.

So step in Gordon Brown with the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which includes a special clause to allow the creation of human-animal hybrid blastocysts so long as they are destroyed before they reach 14 days “old”, i.e. long before they have developed into even an embryo. Problem solved.

Except finding cures and treatments for horrid debilitating diseases is something the Catholic Church really hates. Suddenly we’re told MPs have been consulting their local churches about this (Which MPs? And have they also consulted the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s sufferers in their local care homes and hospices? Also I had no idea how many Catholics there are in parliament, didn’t Henry the Eighth get rid of them a few centuries back and replace them with the cub scouts?).

And after much debate they’re now being given a free vote on that clause…

Now a part of me thinks a free vote is the right choice because at least we’ll all know which MPs not to vote for next time round.

But another part of me thinks this: I’m an atheist. I’ll bet you good money most of the researching scientists are atheists. I don’t want to suffer like Granddad did.

So I propose that the atheist scientists get on with the research and if the Catholic Alzheimer’s sufferers of the future prefer not to use the resulting treatments on principle – fine. You see the law isn’t saying anyone would be forced to create hybrid blastocysts, only that they can if they want to. Those people who object to their creation are welcome to not create them.

And isn’t this the trouble with religious-based laws?

I mean if you’re religious about it, don’t get an abortion, don’t get a gay marriage, don’t adopt children into your lesbian family (another clause they are being allowed to opt out of) but don’t try to pass laws telling me how to live my life.

If it doesn’t go through, I might go offer to donate some eggs to researchers. Anyone know how to do this? Anyone else coming?

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About the author
This is a guest post. Kate is a stand-up comedian and is interested in secularism, feminism and stand-up comedy. Also at: Cruella-blog, Butcher's Writer's Group and Kate's Quite Sarcastic Almost Daily News Podcast
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Health ,Religion

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Reader comments

A horrible, wretched situation for your grandfather and his family. But are you saying that absolutely anything at all goes, provided it could help people in that situation? And if you’re not saying that, where is the line drawn, and who is entitled to draw it?


Hear, hear.

I agree, Kate, but I don’t think that you go far enough: religious people who attempt to use the law to enforce their religious view onto unbelievers ought to be stabbed repeatedly in the face, then shot, then hanged, then drowned.

5. Margin4 Error

“I’ll bet you good money most of the researching scientists are atheists.”

That’s very unlikely to be true.

While I completely agree with stem cell research and think this advance is a great opportunity for this country to do something it does really well (ie make major medical breakthroughs) – I can’t back the anti-religious nonsense.

millions and millions of religious people are in favour of stem cell research in this country. And scientists in every field have a wide range of religious views, of which atheism is just one. (Remember, the vast majority of the population is not atheist.)

Importantly – countless religious MPs and Ministers have voted with their concience time and time again in favour of laws that permit and promote this sort of scientific advance. And many will do so again in this case.

Take Stephen Timms – a very religious man and a long standing Labour Minister. He has (for example) never failed to vote in the House of Commons in favour of extending gay rights.

Of course you’ll rarely hear of the hundreds of religious MPs whowhen confronted by a matter of ‘concience’ do what their concience tells them – rather than what an outdated interpretation of religious texts tells them.

Of course I can be sanguine as there is next to no chance of this legislation failing.


> ought to be stabbed repeatedly in the face, then shot, then hanged, then drowned.

I believe that’s been tried already. Read The Golden Legend. Or bits of Acts. No shooting, though, for obvious reasons. The upshot of it all was rather counter-productive.

“Except finding cures and treatments for horrid debilitating diseases is something the Catholic Church really hates.”

That is a straw church, you’ve built there. They don’t hate curing debilitating diseases. They hate part of the PROCESS involved in developing those cures. Admittedly, for silly doctrinal reasons I can’t fully fathom, but to characterise the “other side” as purely malicious is to bring the tone of the debate down, just so that you can send out a catcall to people you already have on side. You really don’t need to make those sort of comments, while still demolishing the church’s position.

Well I’ll answer a few points:

1) Of course I don’t think we should do ANYTHING to find cures for Alzheimer’s. But I think we should definitely do anything that doesn’t cause any human suffering. Ironically the bill would allow the research to continue without human egg donations. If the bill is stopped women will need to go through the suffering associated with fertility drugs and intrusive egg harvesting in order to keep the research going.

2) Atheists in this country are not far off being a majority. Up to about 44% I think. Data here:
And remember the more education, the more likely you are to be an atheist.

3) And here’s the thing with the claim that I’m creating a “straw church”. I accept a lot of religious people don’t feel as extremely about the matter as people like Cardinal O’Brien. But if religious people want to be recognised as moderate you need to have moderate leadership and moderate spokespeople. The only person speaking out on behalf of the Catholic Church is Cardinal O’Brien. Where are the voices of moderate Catholicism. And why is an extremist allowed to become the head of your organisation. It’s a toughie because religion really suffers with this. Any other political group would appoint as their leader an individual whose views represented a middle ground among the group. Religions are led by the MOST RELIGIOUS person. And that comes about because of the idea that being religious is a virtue all of it’s own. Until that is broken religion is going to keep getting a bad name…

9. Samuel Jays

Come on Kate… 44% atheist / agnostic – i’d like to see the breakdown between these two as you and I both know there not the same…..check definition out on wikipedia….

“And remember the more education, the more likely you are to be an atheist.”…..again what a load of nonsense… most of the fundamentals of science were developed by scientists who were devoutly religious….take evolution for instance, Al-Jahiz- a devout muslim who authored “The Book of Animals” in 816AD first speculated on the influence of the environment on animals and developed an early theory of evolution.

Al-Jahiz considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the Struggle for existence….sounds familiar??? infact i would like you to put forward a list of atheists that have pushed science forward vs. list of religious scholars who have done the same…. i think you will be suprised.

10. Margin4 Error


Atheists and agnostics are, as Samuel says, not the same thing.

more importantly – What evidence do you have to suggest that level of education is inversely proportional to religiosity?

I ask because there are a handful of studies on this, mainly from america, and they tend to contradict each other, at least in part because of difficulties in defining religiousity.

So is there a comprehensive study that counters the normal perception that in England, the Church of England is the Conservative at prayer, at least in part because both correlate with middle class life.

11. Margin4 Error

From wikpedia….

[edit] Studies comparing religious behaviour and educational attainment
This short section requires expansion.

In Australia, 23% of Christian church attenders have earned a university or postgraduate degree, whereas the figure for the general population is 13%.[12] Christianity is the predominant religion in Australia, although adherence is falling[13]. Commentators on the Survey attribute the educational levels to sociological factors, such as age, class and income, making no claims about intelligence.[12] [14]

In the US, religious behavior also increases with education level, according to raw data from the 2004 General Social Survey, which indicates that 30.4% of those with a graduate degree attend religious services weekly or more, a statistically significant proportion, higher than any lesser educated group.[7] Further the group with the highest percentage of “never attending” was composed by those with only a high school education or less.
(This interpretation of the data may not account for the following factors: Nonreligious people could attend church during religious holidays only, or they could attend church because the rest of their family does.[citation needed])

Studies of Mormons in the US also display a high positive correlation between education levels and religiosity. Survey research indicated that 41% of Mormons with only elementary school education attend church regularly. By contrast, 76% of Mormon college graduates attend church regularly and 78% of Mormons who went beyond their college degrees to do graduate study attend church regularly.[15] Again, the researchers do not equate this educational level with intelligence.

Sam @ 9:

Of course most scientists throughout history were religious – most people throughout history have been religious, because for most of history there has been quite a large gap for the supernatural to fit in alongside the science. As we’ve learned more and more about how the world works, supernatural phenomena become less and less plausible.

In a review of 43 studies carried out since 1927 published in the Mensa Magazine in 2002 finds an inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Analyzing 43 studies Paul Bell found that all but four reported such a connection, and he concluded that “the higher one’s intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold ‘beliefs’ of any kind.”[1] A survey referred to in a letter published in Nature in 1998 confirms that belief in a personal God or afterlife is at an all time low among the members of the National Academy of Science, only 7.0% of which believed in a personal God as compared to more than 85% of the US general population.

Worship that Margin4 error.

14. douglas clark

There seems to be a huge gap between the number of folk that are willing to say that they, at the very least thyey don’t believe in God – the polls Kate refers to – and actual attendance at Churches, which appears to run at around 10%:

down at par 6, where self reporting is somewhat disputed.

Can we just assume the remaining 44% or so are just apathetic?

15. Margin4 Error


Intelligence and educational achievement are not the same thing – one (educational achievement) is an easy indicator – intelligence remains ill-defined and to some extent racist.

for example – IQ testing shows that africans are dummer than europeans – yet clearly a sensible understanding of evolution (humans are all roughly the same) and of statistics (testing two large bodies that are the same should conclude with equal results) suggests that IQ is therefore wrong.

Thats hardly surprising as a western mechanism for testing intelligence according to a rather weak understanding of what constitutes intelligence in the first place. But clearly it weighs too heavilly skills that are commonly taught and developed in Europe, and too lightly those commonly taught and developed in Africa.

16. Margin4 Error

So Mund

Straw men about “intelligence” aside – would you like to address the evidence that education and religion appear to correlate in cases like church attendance in Australia and the USA?

Maybe having a better family setup could account for that. If you looked at Indians for instance, there demand for children to go to university means that they have an incredibly high rate of graduates. Conversely they have low athletes, vice versa could be said for “Black” people. This is of course highly generalised and definately not to offend any-one.

18. Margin4 Error


I dare say social factors have some impact here – both on educational attainment and on religiousity. Bought up by two atheists I was always likely to be atheist too – and education follows a similar route across society as a whole. (kids whose parents have a degree are more likely to go to uni than kids of parents who don’t have one)

So are you saying religious people have better education because religious people have a better family setup? And if so – does that not somewhat validate that Kate’s “And remember the more education, the more likely you are to be an atheist” comment was not true? (as a couple of argued.

19. Margin4 Error

Also – to avoid worrying about causing offence in future. Try cricket and football.

There is no biological reason why India is good at cricket and Brazil is good at football – its just that young athletes in india are socially pressed towards cricket while young athletes in brazil are pressed towards football.

Thus you can make the same point about social influence without racial offence.

Um completely wrong with the sports. Indians tend to be smaller and less muscle mass. Brazilians on the other hand are a mixture of African, European and the Native Indian Tribes. Far more Genetic diversity and a far larger pressure on physical attributes then in the Indian Sub Continent.

Doesn’t mean India could never have a World Cup winning football team (there is 1 billion people) but the sports played are far less stamina base.

What I was trying to get at before is that with a nuclear family the child will be far more likely to go to tertiary education. Also in Australia and America it is beneficial (socially positive) to say your Christian. Both countries are somewhat racist (or at least have race issues spanning a long time which have never been addressed), and both were made by very religious people (not the founding fathers but afterwards).

I’m never that worried about causing offense when the evidence is plain to see. There are genetic differences Indians have higher risks of heart disease and cannot digest wheat products properly, Oriental people have a harder time with alcohol. No-one is better then any other but there ARE differences.

21. Margin4 Error


Are you suggesting less natural muscle mass results in lower stamina? That seems to run contrary to evidence that athletes of East African descent dominate long distance running while those of West African descent dominate sprint running. (note not East and West Africans – but athletes descended from East and West Africa, even where they were born and grew up in North America, Europe and elsewhere).

Likewise – I can’t help but note a flaw in your understanding of Cricket. The three best national teams of my lifetime have come The West Indies, Australia, and India. Genetically those are very different populations represented.

At the same time Football in Africa is dominated not by a west African nation, but by egypt, which has won four ANCs. And elsewhere predominantly white nations like Germany and Italy have won World Cups in equal measure to Brazil (better than equal measure when population size is accounted for).

is it not more evidence based to note that India, like Australia and the West Indies, had cricket spread across its culture by the British Empire – and thus it is a cultural issue not a biological one?

22. Margin4 Error

back to the point

1 – so if a nuclear family is more likely to go to uni – does that explain why religious people are more likely to go to uni? (are they are more likely to grow up in nuclear families?)

2 – What does past or present racism have to do with religion? Britain grew rich off the slave trade and the industrial revolution was born of protestantism. Germany undertook the holocaust. yet neither is particularly religious now, nor puts any particular premium on religious adherance. Meanwhile Russia has a long history of skepticism towards religion and yet is one of the most racist countries on earth today. (ps – was Australia created by very religious people? Its history is surely more dominated by notions of colonial trade and of course the convicts sent there in large numbers.)

I fear you are perhaps confusing a range of prejudices about religious people and imagining that they constitute evidence.

For example – I understand that in the USA some religious firebrands tend also to have supported racism over the years. This leads to a handy northern stereotype of southerners. But it was also the religious that led the civil rights movement in the USA, something that is often glossed over by a flippant understanding of american history and society.

Yep that last post was a little wayward, basically my position is this. If Some-one is an atheist they are more likely to be intelligent. That’s all. So if some-one tells me they are an atheist I know that I have a higher chance of liking said person (not because they are an atheist however). Is that ok?

I don’t how how racism came into this but hey.

Last point don’t forget the roles of the Marxist/Communists in the civil rights battle.

Good day.

24. douglas clark

Margin 4 Error / Mund.

Neither of you have answered my substantive point that, in the UK at least, Church attendance hovers around the 10% mark. I’d actually like an answer as to why politics in the UK is hung up on the opinions of small minorities within small minorities.

I’d have thought it was bloody obvious that if a game is your national sport, then you’d tend to be quite good at it. IIRC the Hungarians are dead keen on pentathalon, and keep winning medals at it.


Japan used to be pretty shit at football, but they aren’t anymore. Might have something to do with taking an interest? The only true international mass participation sport – apart from soccer -is probably golf, and it throws up winners from all around the world.

And even I can see a huge difference between the followers of Martin Luther King and those of Gerry Falwell. I’d say there was a big a difference between those two and most atheists.

Japan will never win anything in international football as simply put they aren’t big enough. They same would go for most east asian teams.

Besides the point.

The minorities thing is all to do with the media. Constant news cycles searching for stories out of nothing if all else fails.

Don’t really get what the rest of your post is on about. Anyway I’m off to pick up.

Sorry I read a ridiculous post about football just now. The northern African teams win because they are more organised and can more easily retain there players. If you look at all the senegalese players who have played for other countries like France they could easily have got a Qorld Cup quarter final. Not to mention civil wars, aids, economic strife and a lack of any resemblance to national leagues (leading to very few managers, even less good ones). Do you know anything about football?

No Cricket does not have much athletic bearing and is why white people can actually compete. Look at the track events. Why are Kenyans better at long distance running? Because it’s there national sport? I bet the field events are rarely even shown to African children and when they actually are they’ll own those to. Of course there will obviously be a minority of other genetic heritages competing as that is only natural but every sport.

The more tactics, strategy and reaction time involved the more even the playing field becomes.

High twitch fibres any-one? Now I really am off.

27. douglas clark


With the following, fairly obvious caveats.

So caveats first then?

1: You have to care. If the Japanese keep caring, they could get better. If they surrender to something stupid like baseball, then they won’t become part of the true planet.

2. Don’t know that size matters exactly. And I don’t think every Japanese is short.

3. This is all theoretical, as Scotland are about to win the next World Cup.

Alternative points of view:

Franz Beckenbaur, who was only probably the second best attacking centre back in the histrory of football, was not, as far as I know, noted for his ‘high twitch fibres’ whatever they are. Neither was the best. Smooth stuff matters too. And the ability to jump over an otherwise, crippling tackle.

Ho hum, ’tis a beautiful and misunderstood game, perhaps both by you and me?

And I thought I was a liberal!?

Your just denying science. It’s all genetics baby.

Talking about the height of Japanese, it is interesting to note that this has a direct correlation with dietary intake during significant growth phases. So, as the Japanese diet increasingly includes beef in place of fish greater height and greater obesity are changing the reality that lies behind the old stereotype.

There is also some evidence to say that bad diet during periods of childhood or adolescence is at least partly responsible for propensity towards one longer term physical condition or another, although what I understood was that this is hard to seperate from genetic predispositions, and may even be responsible for minor genetic mutations during those critical phases, but it’s complicated stuff and is hardly conclusive.

On the subject of religous observance/church attendance intelligence is a complete non-sequitur, especially as there are many different types of intelligence beyond simple problem-solving IQ, such as spatial awareness (highly relevant to field sports, and especially so for leadership roles such as Der Kaiser’s defensive libero in footy).

Anyway, I think it is helpful to quote seneca the younger at this point:
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

It always gets my goat to read polarised arguments, be it smart/stupid or whatever, as this always fails to grasp concepts beyond any conventional understanding based upon a category mistake, because that there is more to it than is being described. Even where Seneca is concerned on this point ‘common’, ‘wise’ and ‘a ruler’ aren’t completely incompatible – although a precise combination leads one to draw conclusions, as with the case of Tony Blair!

The problem as I see it is as much of one of reporting and the irresponsibility betrayed by the commentariat in that the media is constrained by the format it uses and therefore needs to adopt a shorthand way of getting it’s message across.

The consequence of this is that extreme voices are repeated in order to create contrast to the exclusion of any acceptable moderates or reasonable voices, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction with the process and disillusion with any individuals involved.

The by-product for the audience is the tendency to create stereotypes of the organisation associated with the representative quoted on their behalf – which is why it is so important that contexts are clearly understood and we each accept our obligations to avoid pettiness and triviality.

It’s a question of trust.

But hey, that’s politics!

Additionally, it is something that LC should take note of, as recently (this article being only one example) the tactic of point-counterpoint has resulted in discussion threads that have degenerated into unsatisfactorily circular arguments and annoyingly divisive spats – all to the detriment of any ambition of building coalitions.

Whoever told you it causes genetic mutations in the growth phase is completely false. Maybe I should leave the science off these boards as those interested in politics rarely know what there talking about, and hey I’m only a 4th year med student so I’m not so much better.

…only repeating what I’ve read and trying to keep an open mind about current research: “…may…hardly conclusive…”

35. douglas clark


It is strange then, is it not, that the beautiful game nowadays takes such care to regulate the diet of footballers with an almost religious zeal?

I thought it was a given that a crap diet could cause defects; bandy legs, rickets, extreme fatness and the like? If you know otherwise, please share. It would be far better that we had an informed discussion, rather than a spat.

Mund baby,

if everything is genetics and all genetic science is decided between conception and implantation, then aren’t you arguing in favour of pre-determination?

Is science a religion now? If so, then Hugh Laurie must be God!

37. Margin4 Error


you might want to re-read my point about east and west african descended athletes. I thought I was quite clear I was talking about those descended from east and west africa, rather than only those who grew up there.

But anyway – you seem to have come round to my “its culture not nature” position on sport – so thats cool.

38. Margin4 Error


I don’t think we do get hung up on tiny minorities in UK politics.

This article is hung up on those tiny minorities – but those four or five MPs that make up the subject of the blog are massively outweighed by hundreds of MPs of whatever religion they have and who think stem cell research is a good thing.

It is rare in UK politics that an issue even has a religious element to it. Religion has been largely sidelined and has little say in any significant policy area.

Occasional matters of ethics cause a minor stir like this one – but the legislation still tends to pass, and the interest here is only because a couple of ministers were among the tiny minority this time.

39. douglas clark

Margin4Error @ 38,

Fair enough, I hope you are right.

It may be that I am confusing the amount of media attention that is given to the words of religious representatives, the easy access that they seem to have to the corridors of power and the general difficulty most politicians seem to have with declaring an atheist sensibility are just overegging it a bit…..

40. Margin4 Error


I guess I think that like people of other religions it makes so little difference to their politics that they never ‘declare’ it one way or another because it doesn’t really come up.

I imagine it makes some difference to who they are – but it is a defining aspect to their politics for so few (Robin Cook springs to mind) that declaring a belief that there is no god seems irrelevant.

I may be wrong of course.

Douglas @35
That’s a bad example of genetic mutability, as physical development might be an indicator but it is no proof. A better example would be almost any form of cancer.

Margin4Error – I agree that religion shouldn’t be confused with conscience, otherwise we ought also to discuss the religious doctrine of those MPs whose faith-based conclusions we happen to agree with.

Much of the problem of debate as a format for political progress is the difficulty in trying to fathom a unifying basis for agreeing or disagreeing with any specific proposal, in order that the process which is designed to tease out improvements does so, rather than simply defining and reinforcing camps of opposition.

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