Leader: In the wake of the embryo debate

21 May 2008

THERE ARE several things to note about the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The first is that it is good that there has been a debate. There was never, of course, anything to stop people debating the principles that govern experiments on human embryos at any time; but such issues are seldom discussed satisfactorily in a vacuum. The formulation of legislation, and its consideration by MPs, who are susceptible to lobbying and public arguments, has both focused the debate and opened it up to scrutiny.

The second observation is that, in the main, the debate has been conducted at a disappointingly low level. It was only to be expected that the different lobby groups would simplify the issues in order to attract support; but the ludicrous invocation of Dr Frankenstein at every turn has degraded the arguments, not least those of some Christian lobbyists. The Church has been justifiably scornful of Richard Dawkins’s efforts to construct a case against religion. Religious commentators ought, at least, to ensure they have a secure grasp on the scientific constraints contained in the Bill before dismissing them in such a cavalier fashion.

One conclusion from the conduct of the present debate is that, despite or perhaps because of Professor Dawkins, scientists are still deemed by the public to be untrustworthy. Much of the argument has centred not on the regulations contained in the Bill, but on what the scientists might press for next. The theory of a slippery slope into scientific permissiveness is not supported by the facts, however. A key element in the regulations, that no embryonic experiment can be taken beyond 14 days after fertilisation, has been observed since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, and continues to be supported by the scientific establishment.

The slippery-slope accusation was applied in the other direction during the debate on abortion time-limits. Pro-abortion campaigners warned that the attempt to limit abortion to 20 or 22 weeks was just the start of a campaign to reduce it further and perhaps ban it outright. The paradox of debating responsible treatment of a two-week old group of cells and five-month-old foetuses on successive evenings must have struck many MPs, but on this subject, at least, many of those taking part in the debate seem to have made genuine attempts to understand the science.

In a new booklet, Neither Private nor Privileged: The role of Christianity in Britain today (Theos), Nick Spencer takes issue with the developing concept of personal autonomy, contrasting it with what he calls “a Christian world-view”. None the less, the attempt to remove discrimination from the statutes in order to extend this autonomy, as in the present Bill, accords with key tenets of a faith that celebrates freedom. What the debate has made clear, however, is that the interpretation of this freedom needs to be under constant review.

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