Body language: Robert Winston

NEVER mind the bravura of his lolly-pink shirt. Professor Lord Robert Winston’s trademark ebullience has fizzled into the flatness of jet-lag. It could be a metaphor for the way he views many of modern medicine’s exciting but controversial breakthroughs.

IVF? Overused and the cause of lazy medicine, with doctors now rarely trying to treat the underlying causes of infertility. Donor eggs? The trade in genetic material is morally risky. Gene therapy? Might change what it means to be human.

Winston, a fertility authority best known as the genial, inquiring face of the hit BBC documentary series The Human Body, was in Melbourne last weekend for the Alfred Deakin Lecture series, part of the Federation Festival, speaking on the topic ‘Will
we still be human at the end of the 21st century?’
The short answer is yes. Winston has no doubt that key traits will persist: ‘We will still have the same emotions. We will hate and fear and love as … in the 20th Century. In that sense, we will still be the same as we were 10,000 years ago.’

The question he wants to raise is not about physical or mental evolution so much as human philosophical response to the issues raised by new technologies such as gene therapy.

‘If you alter an individual person’s genetic structure, you alter their children’s structure. If you alter the genome line, you have altered people ever after.

‘I think it’s very problematic. It’s a long way into the future … but we haven’t had the real debate, which is about making transgenic humans; humans who have genes in them that are not actually their own.’

Of particular concern is the temptation, if science makes it possible, to ‘modify our genetics to enhance certain characteristics that we see as valuable: intelligence and strength and grace and beauty and so on. And, if you change the DNA structure to make people more intelligent … you have changed the genome that will be passed on. It will be heritable.

‘You define a species by its genetic make-up. The human species is essentially built into the recipe of its DNA. You change the DNA, you’ve changed the recipe. If you’ve changed the recipe, it’s a different kind of dish.’

If living things are defined by their assemblage of genes as human, chimpanzee, mouse, yeast and tree, and those genes are changed, one has to ask if they would still be human, chimpanzee, mouse and so on, he says.

‘That’s an interesting question because of our central belief that holds the moral structure of our society together, which is that we believe in the sanctity, above all, of human life. We believe in the sanctity of human life mainly because we see ourselves built in the image of God. If we change that image, are we still human? And if we’re not human, how do we view those who are human? Are humans still sacrosanct?

‘When the Nazis destroyed gypsies, Jews and imbeciles in the 1930s, it was because they thought they were subhuman, not truly human. Essentially, it isn’t so different; the difference is they didn’t have the knowledge to understand what we have today.’

The worry is that if we create ‘superhumans’, will they then regard ordinary humans as subhuman?
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying.’
Winston’s concern for human rights underlies his analysis of other hot topics. He supports, for example, lesbian women having access to IVF but not women past menopause using the technique. The latter is ‘morally risky’ because it requires donor eggs, and ‘my impression of most donors is that they wouldn’t out of preference want to give their eggs to a 62-year-old woman’.

But he sees Victoria’s laws banning lesbian access to IVF and artificial insemination as a ‘primitive … legal situation’. Such a stance would have to be based either on religious principles – ‘and everybody’s different religiously’ – or the fear that children would suffer. British research has found that children of lesbian couples do at least as well as children from heterosexual families, he says.

‘It seems to me that legislation that is social essentially should be based on proper evidence, and not to do so is pure prejudice.’

Winston, so affable on screen, can be more caustic when unscripted. When Prince Charles criticised genetically modified food and waxed lyrical about his organically grown vegetables, Winston retorted that HRH ‘is one of the most genetically modified individuals on the planet’.

The paradox still makes Winston laugh.

‘It’s ludicrous to have a diatribe about genetically modified food when the corn that we eat has been genetically modified by selective breeding, which is what the Royal Family’s been doing with arranged marriages for centuries.’

So what does this Labour lord, appointed six years ago by a Conservative government, think of the monarchy?
He finds the question mildly alarming: ‘Oh, my goodness! I’m a Labour peer. I’m not this reincarnation of Stalin, red of tooth and claw and with a pickaxe. I was talking to Princess Anne yesterday. I think they’re rather nice, actually.

‘This isn’t an issue I want to discuss in Australia because you have different views about the Royal Family – quite reasonably because you want, by and large, to re-evaluate your position in the world as a republic. And so you should.

‘For us in Britain, whether you’re Labour or Conservative, the general view is that the monarchy is still a useful political figurehead, which works rather better than a presidency would do. I think the Royal Family hold certain aspects of British tradition together rather well.’

Winston has spent most of his professional life working with life, creating embryos and successfully screening them for genetic defects before implanting them to grow as babies. He has also explored death. In one of his television documentaries, he filmed the natural dying of an old man and used technology to track the disappearance of the last sign of life from his body.

Does Winston, so preoccupied with the big questions, believe in life after death? Again he is startled and a bit irritated.

‘Oh no. God knows. Do I believe …? Does it matter? No journalist’s ever asked me a question like that before. I don’t really have a fear of death except for the things I’ll leave unfinished. Life after death doesn’t really have a meaning for me.’

He continues to muse, off balance at the rare experience of being asked a question to which he has no ready answer.

‘It’s a bit like Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis went into the ring not expecting to be knocked out – and he was. And I feel like I’ve been knocked out.’

He roars with laughter, his good humour restored.

First published in The Age.