'Monstrous attack on human rights', 'Frankenstein embryos', 'spare-part children', 'no need for a father' and free votes… What is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill all about?
The intention of the bill is to give freedom for scientists to experiment on the embryo virtually without limit and break hitherto unimaginable taboos. It comes with the cost of disregarding moral and ethical constraints that we would previously have taken for granted. To our shame, since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 we have been able to do what we like with the embryo in the science laboratory for up to 14 days. We have become anaesthetised to the special status of the embryo and play God with it.
This would have been unconscionable before the passing of the 1990 act and a far cry from the psalmist's description of being fearfully and wonderfully made. It is clear, however, from the parliamentary debates in 1990 that the idea of mixing animal and human cells was intolerable. Apparently no longer. How far we have shifted in 18 years.
This bill redefines individual, family and societal life more than any other piece of legislation in our lifetime.
The bill has three main issues: the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos; so called 'saviour' siblings (or 'spare-part children'); and the removal of the consideration of the need for a father when accessing IVF treatment. It will also allow for changes on abortion law.
The bill's passage has been cleverly controlled by the Government. Initial consultation was deliberately timed over the parliamentary 2007 summer recess, making it difficult for groups to rally detailed responses. Then the Science and Technology Committee set up at the same time to look at reform of the abortion law 'banned' any representations based on moral or ethical objections. If abortion isn't a moral or ethical issue, then what is?When the bill came before the Lords, an agreement was made between peers to not table amendments on the abortion issue.
Until now the Government has managed to control the passage of this bill and has not had to face up to public scrutiny of its proposals. But the tide is turning. MPs still have little idea of what the bill is about, but with bulging postbags and media interest they are realising that they will have to get to grips with the issues in this bill, as their seats may depend on it.
The most concerning deceit perpetuated by political and scientific proponents of the bill is to pretend that the creation of hybrid embryos will offer a desperate patient with a terrible disease their only hope of a cure. This perpetuates a piece of fiction that does no service to the seriously ill.
It is nine years since the publication of the 1999 Donaldson Report, on which the Government based its current policy on embryonic stem cells, which were apparently going to provide miracle cures for people with degenerative diseases.
Nine years is a long time in science. What has happened since? Human embryonic stem cells are yet to provide a single therapy for any human disease. Scientists are yet to produce a single stem cell line from a cloned human embryo.
Meanwhile, we have seen adult stem cells provide therapies for more than 80 diseases and bring huge advances using cord blood. The reality is that pioneering scientists, even Professor Wilmut, who created Dolly the Sheep, have now abandoned embryonic stem cell research and are turning to adult stem cells.
The Government, in its desire to lead the world in science, has abandoned any notion of ethical constraint. In many countries you would be imprisoned for performing the science that the Government is proposing.
The law is there to protect the most vulnerable in society. It is time to make the embryo fully human once more and accord it the legal dignity it deserves.