12 May 2008
ByAppeared in BioNews 457
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill returned to the House of Commons for its second reading today. MPs will debate proposed legislation on controversial issues such as the use of animal eggs in human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research and other types of 'hybrid' embryos; 'saviour siblings' - babies conceived following embryo testing to ensure their cord blood will provide tissue-matched stem cells for an existing sick child; and 'the need for a father' to be considered IVF providers when assessing the welfare of children to be conceived using assisted reproduction techniques.
Following pressure from the UK's Catholic community, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has granted Labour MPs a 'free vote' on these three sections of the proposed legislation, although he expects them to vote in favour of the whole Bill if they are passed. A survey of 109 MPs polled by the Guardian newspaper found that 32 have not yet decided which way to vote on the saviour sibling issue, with 56 in favour and 21 against. It also found that 63 to 26 are in favour of human hybrid embryo research, while 56 to 26 are in favour of removing the 'need for a father' clause.
Scientists and patient groups attended a 'show of support' for the Bill at Parliament today, an event that aimed to counter lobbying by groups opposed to embryo research and to explain the science to interested MPs. However, the Medical Research Council discouraged scientists working at its institutes from attending, saying it could have a 'negative impact' and be 'counter-productive'. Stem cell expert Dr Stephen Minger disagreed, saying 'By giving our support to the bill we are showing MPs that there is another point of view'. Evan Harris MP, who organised the event, said it was 'a valid part of public engagement' for scientists to come to Parliament and explain their research.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury has criticised the creation of saviour siblings, saying: 'A human person, an individual body with feelings and thoughts, needs to be treated, as we sometimes say, as an end in itself, not a tool for someone else's agenda'. Rowan Williams continued: 'So we condemn rape, torture and blackmail. We don't allow experiments on people's bodies or minds without their consent. And we don't breed human individuals to create a pool of organs'. UK fertility expert Lord Robert Winston has also said he is 'unhappy' about using IVF technology in this way, saying that saviour siblings could be put under 'undue pressure' to donate tissue.
Adding to the controversy surrounding the Bill, some MPs have tabled amendments calling for a reduction in the legal time limit for abortion, which currently stands at 24 weeks - a move criticised by public health minister Dawn Primarolo, who said: 'I think putting the two together makes it much more complicated. It distracts from what is already an incredibly important bill'. According to the Guardian's poll, 57 of the 109 MPs who responded are against lowering the limit.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).