A conversation with Josephine Quintavalle, of the think tank Comment on Reproductive Ethics

10 Dec 2014

In 1994, Josephine Quintavalle founded CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics), an international think tank that deals with the problems related to the practice of in vitro fertilization. She participated in STI Experts Meeting "Focus on the Embryo".

STI Experts

The idea of founding CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics) came to Josephine Quintavalle when the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the national authority in the United Kingdom required to make an ethical evaluation of proposals concerning fertilization, had a national consultation on removing gametes from living women donors, corpses or foetuses to cure infertility or to undertake scientific research. So CORE started distributing cards on which was written: “No, I do not authorize you to use my gametes”.

Scandalized by the fact that it was possible even only to think of such a proposal, and distressed by the harm the abortion law was causing to British women, Quintavalle decided to devote herself to battles in defence of human life and against the exploitation of the female body and of human embryos that reproductive techniques entail. For 20 years she also worked as a volunteer for Life Organization, providing counselling for more than 7,000 women who had difficulty in facing their pregnancy. Although the Abortion Act (1967) had come into force, abortion in the UK is to be had virtually on request until the 24th week. Moreover 98 per cent of women abort for the personal reason of a not clearly specified “risk to physical and mental health”.

How do you assess the results of the European “One of Us” Campaign that has attracted 1,800,000 supporters in 20 countries?

It is absolutely marvellous that so many signatures have been gathered in defence of embryos and of the inviolability of human life. Italy in particular is to be complimented for stimulating and generating this reaction throughout Europe, and for managing to collect such a large number of supporters. In addition to the immediate goal of prohibiting Europe from funding destructive research on human embryos, this initiative has been extraordinary in gathering together so many pro-life groups across Europe, creating a very powerful network of people that aims to defend human life.

Among these 20 countries, the UK is classified as one of the last because of the number of signatures gathered there: 28,000 in comparison with the more than 630,000 collected in Italy. Why is that?

We really worked hard to convince our pro-life colleagues that it was necessary to support this campaign. There is a very strong pro-life movement in the UK but we are an island in more senses than one: we don’t feel very European in the political arena and we haven’t succeeded in making people understand the importance of this campaign.

What is the situation in the bioethical field?

The UK was the first country in the world to approve legislation on in vitro fertilization and on the numerous controversial ethical issues that emerge from artificial reproduction. British laws have always been sadly progressive and liberal: it is really hard to find cases in which liberal proposals in the bioethical field have been prohibited.

Can you give us a few examples of laws that should have been prohibited?

At the outset human cloning was considered an excessive step and was accordingly forbidden, but today there is great enthusiasm about the possibility of creating embryos with the genetic material of three or four different adults. This procedure, however, involves techniques similar to those of cloning. Hence that initial prohibition has evidently been bypassed. Only think that in the UK today embryos for research purposes may be created from human spermatozoa and cow ovules.

You describe yourself as a pro-life feminist, yet most people believe that feminists themselves are the greatest champions of women’s right to abort.

If feminism is based on the defence of women’s rights, then a feminist cannot but be pro-life: abortion is a true exploitation of the female body and should therefore be combatted. CORE has created an international network of people and groups in different countries, especially in Europe, the United States and Australia: the result has been the creation of coalitions with groups of women who – even though they do not completely share our principles of the defence of human life – recognize and denounce with us the exploitation of women and of their bodies in assisted reproduction, the collection of ovules from (presumed) women donors and recourse to surrogate mothers.

CORE is a sort of slow ethic that aims to create awareness of the reality of assisted reproduction, In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer (IVFET). What is the unspoken truth about IVFET?

That it is permeated by a eugenic logic. More ovules are fertilized through IVFET than those that would be fertilized naturally: several of the embryos that are subsequently produced are immediately rejected because they are not sufficiently “suitable”. Among those that remain the best are implanted straight away, whereas the others are frozen for future use. Those selected for implantation are often subjected to a further genetic diagnosis that entails the removal of cells when the embryo has reached the stage of eight cells. Furthermore this intervention might damage the embryo.

Remaining on the topic of the defence of life, how do you see the situation in Europe today?

The general perception is that the pro-abortion lobbies in the world are gradually losing ground. It is enough to think that half of the States that make up the United States have passed restrictive legislation on abortion; Hungary has inserted in its Constitution the defence of the human embryo; and in Spain numbers are slowly changing, thanks to a very active and dynamic pro-life movement.

And in the UK?

Here, unfortunately, there is very little to celebrate. Besides the application of the most liberal IVFET imaginable with the colossal destruction of human life from its very earliest stages, voluntary terminations of pregnancy are in no way diminishing. Abortion is permitted until the 24th week, in certain circumstances even until the last week of pregnancy. In 2012, out of a total of 160 abortions after the 24th week, 28 took place after the eighth month of gestation.

Already in 2005, in an interview with “The Observer”, you said you wanted to “wake up this nation’s conscience” concerning abortion laws. So has it not woken up?

No, unfortunately not. Indeed today the situation is even more urgent. The UK has fallen completely into the grip of utilitarianism while it is discussing euthanasia, abortion and the genetic manipulation of human embryos. And there’s no real academic debate on bioethics. This is surprising when one thinks that the average European citizen looks to us as a model of democracy and virtue.

Perhaps this limit is due to the fact that pro-life movements in the UK seem to be composed solely of Catholics, at times a little too “loud”?

There are various pro-life movements in the country and it’s true that many of those with a religious basis, especially Catholic and Evangelical Christian, tend to raise their voices a little too high. Their voices in the square are important, but it’s necessary to fight harder also at the political and academic level. In any case the pro-life instinct that exists in every human being has gained momentum in recent years. For example, there has been an increase in young people with no specific religious affiliation who are opposed to the pro-choice policy.

What are the main bioethical battles you face in the UK today?

There will be two important battles in the next few months. One will be against the proposal to reduce as far as possible the doctor’s role in evaluating the motivations that drive women to abort. The second will be against the proposal to create embryos from three “parents”. This will be a really tough battle for us because the problem is camouflaged with a language so highly scientific that it is incomprehensible to ordinary people. We must therefore translate the reality of what is proposed in such a way that our supporters can understand that once again a scientific innovation is in actual fact an attack on the human embryo.

Belgium has recently approved a law that authorizes euthanasia for sick children. The British Government must cut health-care costs, with elderly and sick people who are beginning to feel they are superfluous. Where are we going?

The fight against euthanasia is another of our many battles. Fortunately there is a strong coalition of pro-life groups in England, united under the slogan Care not Killing and headed by Dr Peter Saunders who directs the Christian Medical Fellowship. The shadow of euthanasia is expanding throughout Europe. It really is essential to wake up.


Interview by Laura Gotti Tedeschi originaly published by l'Osservatore Romano
Visit Josephine Quintavalle's Expert profile