Politicised religious groups have been piling their resources and campaigning efforts into trying to undermine the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as it makes its way through parliament. So far they have failed completely in their efforts.
But they aren’t finished yet. Despite all their many would-be amendments being thrown out in the House of Lords, there is now a push by Catholic Labour MPs to be given a free vote when the Bill returns to the House of Commons, probably after Easter.
Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly and the new Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, who are both Catholics, are leading the calls. It follows Catholic objections to several elements of the Bill, for instance, the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos to allow scientists to look for ways of combating terminal illnesses, and the provision for children to be born by IVF without a father’s involvement.
Ms Kelly recently met Geoff Hoon, Labour’s chief whip, to ask for voting restrictions to be removed from much, if not all, of the Bill. At the moment MPs will only be allowed a free vote on any amendments that are tabled on abortion. Defence Secretary Des Browne is also understood to have concerns. All three ministers are prominent Catholics. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, leader of Britain’s four million Catholics, has condemned the bill as “profoundly wrong” because it “radically undermines the place of the father in a child’s life”. The Cardinal recently organised a meeting for Catholic MPs to encourage them to defy the party whip on the Bill and support Church doctrine.
Paul Goggins, a Northern Ireland Office minister, is another to have raised the matter with Hoon. Labour sources say three whips — Tommy McAvoy, Frank Roy and Tony Cunningham — also have serious ethical problems with at least some of the bill. All four are Catholics.
Votes in the Lords on the Bill were whipped to secure its safe passage. Any MPs voting against it in the Commons, or abstaining, could face the ire of the whips. A delegation of Labour MPs linked to the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group are due to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown soon to express their concerns.
But the Catholic campaign against the Bill has come under fire from scientists, who accused priests of spreading lies from the pulpit in an attempt to stoke up opposition to animal-human hybrid experiments. The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales issued a statement attacking the Bill which was read out to congregations across the country last week. It warned that the Bill would allow the creation of “half human, half animals” by combining eggs of women with the sperm of animals. It added: “To do this would be a radical violation of human dignity.” But scientists involved in animal-human embryo experiments accused the church of “blatant inaccuracy”.
Dr Lyle Armstrong, of Newcastle University, said the Church’s statement was “a gross and irresponsible misrepresentation of our position and our intentions”. Hybrid embryos were designed to provide stem cells to treat human diseases – not to create half-human, half-animals, he said. He added: “We find their example of combining the egg of a woman with animal sperm even more distasteful and we wish to make it absolutely clear that our work does not involve this. The aim of our experiments is to discover ways to make stem cells [to treat] human diseases. It is not to give birth to some abnormal chimera. Even if this were possible it has no scientific or moral justification and is in any case strictly prohibited by the legislation. We find it surprising and saddening that the Catholic Church should resort to such blatant inaccuracy to support its message in these matters.”
The Bill would permit scientists to take an animal egg cell, remove the blob in the centre which contains most of the animal’s DNA and replace it with the nucleus from a human cell, taken from a donor. The resulting embryo is 99.9 per cent identical to the human donor – although it contains some animal DNA left over from the egg.
Chris Shaw, Professor of Neurology and Neurogenetics, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, said: “The bishops’ statement on hybrids is not a radical violation of human dignity as they claim – it is a radical violation of the truth.”
This is not the first time the Catholic Church has lied about scientific matters in order to enforce its doctrines. A few years ago it claimed that the virus that can cause AIDS was capable of passing through the walls of a condom. This was condemned by the World Health Organisation and many leading scientists as a dangerous and irresponsible distortion that would discourage condom use among people in the developing world, where Catholic influence is greatest and AIDS is at its most devastating. The Church has not withdrawn the claim.