Monday, 12 May 2008

Human Fertilisation & Embryology Bill

Back in the mid 1980s, the Radio 1 DJ Steve Wright and his posse wrote a song about a character known as Llama Man. I can still remember the lyrics that used to belt out of the school bus radio. ‘He can bleat. He can trot. He’s got everything that a llama’s got!’ What was a joke back then could now become a reality. No seriously, I’m not winding you up. And more importantly, neither is the Government. As you'd expect I'm overstating it a little. But in a raft of horrific ethical decisions what used to be a laugh is about to become legislation. This time, we’ve really lost the plot.
In case you’d not realised, we’re talking about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. It’s already been debated and voted in the House of Lords where sound common sense gave way to powerful political lobbying. Well financed scientific institutions and some medically qualified peers trounced the voices of reason seeking sensible amendments.
But before I really let loose in a fresh tirade I ought to substantiate the strength of my feeling. There are in essence three main objections to the proposals. But before I enumerate them, it’s worth saying that I understand and identify with the compassionate impulse that underpins the motives of some who support this Bill. The noble aim of much scientific research is to reverse the effects of human disease; especially debilitating illnesses with which some of our friends are afflicted. Anyone who’s seen someone struggle with Cystic Fibrosis, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s to name but three will sympathise with the impulse to do all that we can to rid this world of such horrors. But the end does not justify the means. And the means are ethically very dubious, especially when viewed through a Christian ethical framework.
Therefore fuelled by the helpful material produced by Christian Concern for our Nation, the Christian Institute and CARE these are my objections.
1. The Bill undermines the biblical view of the species
The existing legislation will make it permissible for scientists to create animal-human hybrid embryos for research purposes. In a classic piece of spin doctoring they’ve renamed these embryos, which are part human and part animal, ‘human admixed embryos’. Others who are closer to the mark have decided to call the process ‘in vitro bestiality’. There are three types of animal-human embryos that scientists seek.
First there are Cybrids in which the nucleus from an animal egg is removed and replaced with a human nucleus.
Secondly there are Chimeras which are created by bringing together a set of human cells and animal cells during the early stages of development.
Thirdly, there are Hybrids in which animal DNA and human DNA are mixed with the resultant embryo being a new part-human species.
Scientists want these hybrids because they produce a large number of embryonic stem cells and there are insufficient numbers of human eggs. And so, in each of these hybrid ‘creations’ the stem cells are harvested and used for research. The embryo is then destroyed. A fully fledged llama man may have been averted but we’ve just killed a person made in God’s image in the process. And that’s not funny in the least. In response to these proposals, it’s been argued that
a. The process is unnecessary. Adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from sources such as bone marrow and umbilical cord blood have now been used to successfully treat a number of conditions.
b. The process is unsuccessful. Human embryonic stem cell research has failed to produce any treatment or cures in the last 17 years. Some scientists maintain that since these embryos will not develop in the same way as human embryos they are unlikely to yield knowledge of the process by which human stem cells develop.
c. The process is unethical. The issue with this proposal is that the legislation blurs the distinction between animal and human. If we erode the boundaries between the species we destroy the basis for the uniqueness of the human race. There is the world of difference between a rat and a human. It’s on this basis that we have things like human rights. But the foundation for human dignity is about to be obliterated.
2. The Bill undermines the biblical view of the significance of families
This Bill opens the door to three things that are potentially destructive to the family.
a. The creation of Saviour Siblings. When I was a child my father drove a Fiat. It was always breaking down, he was frugal and he was an engineer. And so very often we’d spend a Saturday morning at a ‘wrecker’s yard’ scouting for spare parts to keep the car on the road. Dad was brilliant at taking an old distributor, alternator or thermostat and transplanting it to give new life to our sick vehicle. It’s that image that we need to have in mind when we think about ‘saviour siblings’. Under new legislation scientists would be allowed to create sibling children for the purpose of using them for spare parts. As we might expect with such a controversial proposal there are consequences. This process involves pre-implantation testing of IVF embryos so that those that are a match for the sick sibling can be chosen and those that are not a match can be destroyed. A child that’s a tissue match can then be created for the purpose of seeing his or her body parts removed in order to patch up the sick sibling. In addition, no one has any idea what the anticipated psychological consequence will be for the child as it grows up and realises that it was created principally to resource his or her brother or sister.
b. The removal of Fathers. Whilst many wives lament that their husbands have become emotionally absent fathers and regrettably many women struggle under the burden of raising children as sole parents, this Government wants to enshrine in law the principal that fathers are no longer necessary in families. The Bill removes the need for IVF providers to take into account the child’s need for a father when considering an IVF application. The House of Lords amended the Bill so that it was deemed sufficient for the child to have ‘supportive parenting’. This obviously means that lesbian couples can have their ‘own’ child by IVF. This is undoubtedly going to have a detrimental effect on the development of a child. Apparently studies already confirm this. But you don’t need to be an educational psychologist to work out that being the kid at school who grows up with two mummies is going to have issues. And quite apart from that it simply doesn’t match up to God’s ideal of a father and a mother making their different contribution to the child in the context of a family.
c. The threat of cloning. The Bill allows the Government to introduce regulations in the future which permit a specific form of human reproductive cloning. Previously, any cloned human embryo had to be destroyed at 14 days. But in some circumstances this new Bill could change that. It allows cloning techniques using cell nuclear replacement to be used to prevent the transmission of some genetic diseases from the Mother to a child. The process will create a child with three parents since an egg cell from a second woman would be needed to develop the child. The child would therefore have two mothers and a father. It would also essentially be a clone of its ‘diseased’ mother. The moral and legal issues alone are bewildering let alone the likely psychological effects on the child. Worryingly, the Bill does not introduce regulations that limit this practice being extended beyond the avoidance of mitochondrial disease.
3. The Bill undermines the biblical view of the sanctity of human life
At the Marie Stopes Centre not far from our house a giant banner proudly proclaims, ‘Celebrating 25 years of reproductive healthcare’. I ought to complain to the Advertising Standards Agency for an utterly misleading promotion. It’s worth noting that there’s very little healthcare being offered to the unborn child. As a result of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the law on abortion is up for grabs. Both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-abortion’ groups will table amendments. Rather perversely, given the underlying presupposition that it’s ethically acceptable to destroy human embryos, the Bill provides opportunities to improve the law on abortion and lessen the damage that it causes. This could be the case in the following three areas.
a. Reducing upper limits. At the present time the upper limit for a legal abortion is 24 weeks. However, there’s overwhelming public support for a reduction. In 2005 two thirds of the public, 63% of MPs and three quarters of women supported a reduction. In addition, a 2007 survey reported that 65% of GPs would welcome a reduction. Three factors have contributed to this. First, recent ultrasound images of the embryo in the early stages of development in the womb have made people realise that the embryo is simply an unborn child. Secondly, the bizarre juxtaposition in hospitals of neo-natal units preserving the lives of pre term children and abortion units where pregnancies are being terminated at the same gestation period. And thirdly, there’s mounting medical evidence that the foetus may be aware of pain at less than 20 weeks.
b. Ending abortion for disability. Currently the law allows abortion up to birth if there’s a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities such that the child could be classified as handicapped. Not only is this an outrageous devaluation of the value of human life but it discriminates against the disabled. Within the current legislation incredibly there’s no definition of what constitutes abnormalities. There’ve been reports of abortions being performed on children with minor medical conditions like a cleft lip and palate, webbed fingers and extra digits. It’s outrageous that these should be regarded as disabilities, especially when medical science can deal with them. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re destroying a person for having an extra toe.
c. Providing independent counselling. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently warned that having an abortion can damage a woman’s mental health and they should be told the risks before proceeding. Not all women are aware of the facts about abortion, the consequences of abortion or the alternatives to abortion. In order to protect the women who proceed to abortion under pressure from others, it’s imperative that they receive the guidance they need to make an informed decision. Criticism has been levelled at the accuracy of the advice provided by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Accusations have been made that much of the counselling advice originates with proponents of the abortion industry. Therefore in the presence of vested interests it seems wise to provide statutory independent guidance for all women seeking an abortion.
Our country is not in a great place. Morally speaking. We can’t stand by and do nothing. I know that we're busy and we've all got slots on our plates. But this is our holocaust. Since 1967 6.7 million children have been terminated. It's genocide. In years to come our Grandchildren may ask us how this could have happened. They'll ask what we did and what the churches we belonged to did. And what will we say? Will they be satisfied with our comments about busyness. I hope not. We have an opportunity to speak the truth and stem the tide. So what should we do? There are three simple things that we could do that won't take too much effort. We could pray, pester and protest.
1. We should pray because God has not stopped ruling His world. He alone has the power to reverse the downward trend into immorality that this country is witnessing and participating in. Pray that there’s widespread media coverage of these issues and that the dissenting voices are heard loud and clear. Pray that God would have mercy on this nation so that evil is restrained. And pray that the pro-life Politicians and pro-Life groups working to oppose this Bill have the courage, wisdom and resources necessary to do so. Stop reading this now and pray.
2. We should pester our MP and bring him or her up to speed on our issues with this Bill. We can write a letter, send an e-mail or pitch up in person at a surgery to voice our displeasure at the liberalisation proposed in this Bill. Details on how to do this are available here.
3. We could protest outside Parliament on 14th May from 12.30pm onwards. The events is being organised by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group. It’s being supported by organisations like CARE, Christian Medical Fellowship and Christian Concern for our Nation. Details are available here. We could also take a few minutes to sign the online petitions at