Catholic pressure to amend some of the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2007, currently passing through parliament in the UK, is increasing. Last week, the Vatican added the destruction of embryos to a new list of mortal sins and, according to the BBC, masses across the country are ending 'with a plea for parishioners to write to their MPs with a list of reservations' about the proposed new legislation. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, is campaigning hard against the proposed legislation: 'many people of all faiths and none are deeply concerned by the moral questions raised by this Bill', he said, adding that 'now is the time for our voices to be heard'.
Catholics argue that the price to be paid if all the provisions of the Bill are implemented is too high and that any procedure which involves selecting embryos and destroying those which are unwanted or which have been used for research - for whatever end - is an affront to human life and dignity. However, many of the procedures that the Bill authorises are already currently legal - and there is little indication that this would change even with widespread opposition from Catholics, as the UK has established itself as a world leader in some of the scientific research in these areas. It is only very few things - such as the deliberate creation of 'hybrid' embryos, that are being newly brought into the law.
Recognising this, as well as the fact that some of the fertility procedures the Bill regulates have become almost 'commonplace' since the original legislation was passed in 1990, some Catholics are realistic about the Bill and the extensions it proposes - as well as what it will not allow. Professor David Jones, from the Catholic St Mary's University College, described some of the features of the Bill as 'positive', for example the proposed prohibition on the use of sex selection for non-medical purposes. While this is a 'good start', in his eyes, he would, however, like to see all sex selection prohibited. He also applauded the Bill for seeking to ensure 'that donor conceived children have a right to find out about their genetic heritage', while highlighting some of the problems: 'the human-animal hybrids are something which many people feel deep disquiet about', he said, adding 'and not just the Catholics'.
Because the Catholic Church feels that others share some of its reservations about the Bill, it is pushing for the establishment of a national panel which could keep some of the contentious areas under discussion, and be a 'transparent forum for debate'. Such a panel, it says, should be made up of both religious and secular lay members, as well as scientists, but would not simply be like the existing Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which, as an arm of government, they see as 'simply not in the position to provide' such a forum.
One of the key issues that remain to be sorted out is whether MPs will be allowed a free vote on the bill. Currently Labour MPs have been told they may abstain, but not vote against it. Labour's Chief Whip, Geoff Hoon, has told three MPs who have threatened to vote against the Bill that they must not do so if they want to remain in their jobs. However, the three Cabinet members - Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy - are now threatening to rebel. Last week more than 100 academics wrote to The Times newspaper urging the government to allow a 'conscience vote', as has previously been the case with such controversial legislation, and gaining a free vote remains a great hope of many Catholics. Helen Watt, director of the Linacre Centre, which studies health issues from a Catholic perspective, said that 'MPs of all parties should have the courage to vote against the Bill, and in favour of amendments to remove its most destructive aspects'. However, after clashes with the opposition leader in the House of Commons last week, the Prime Minister has now pledged a traditional free vote on a bid to lower the abortion limit, and for the first time suggested he may also give way to demands from Catholic ministers not to force them to compromise their religious beliefs over the rest of the Bill.