Fertile ground for debate

The Embryo Research Debate
July 18, 1997

When the first test-tube baby was born in 1978, the Daily Mail's exclusive front-page photograph was triumphantly headed: "Here she is - the Lovely Louise". The celebration, of baby, motherhood and family values brought about by new reproductive technology, was the start of a tabloid tradition of positive reporting of in vitro fertilisation and its results.

The endurance of that tradition is confirmed in Michael Mulkay's excellent study of one of the later controversies around the technology, over the use of embryos in research. The more recent media flurry over Dolly the cloned sheep, and apparent public disquiet about much other work in human genetics, has many scientists agitated about popular representation of their work. So it is useful to be reminded how relentlessly promotional much of the coverage of the startling advances in biomedical technology has been.

The embryo research debate of the second half of the 1980s turned on a single issue, whether laboratory-created embryos could be used for further experiments until they were 14 days old, or whether all such work should be banned. All parties agreed that there was no question of going beyond this limit. They differed only on the moral status of the embryo before the magic fortnight was up.

The book, which brings together material from numerous papers Mulkay has already published, shows how many other advantages the scientists had in the debate besides the largely positive press attitude to both the research and its application. Although at one point it looked as if there was a real chance that scientists might lose the legislative battle, once mobilised, they waged an extremely effective campaign. They had the tacit support of the government, which dragged its feet until parliamentary and public opinion shifted in favour of the permissive position. They were united where religious feeling, in particular, was divided. And they had a number of important rhetorical advantages.

As one would expect from his earlier work in the sociology of science, Mulkay has a particularly keen ear for the rhetoric of the debate. Most obviously, the scientists had the authority to define the entity floating in their petri dishes as a "pre-embryo", a term never heard before, until it was 14 days old. But he also shows clearly how the proponents of research were able to portray those who attacked them on moral grounds as irrational, and susceptible to fears grounded only in science fiction.

The researchers, by contrast, were depicted as dealing only in facts, even when they told stories about the future.

Surprisingly, even Frankenstein - another preoccupation of geneticists today - was mainly a rhetorical resource for the proresearch lobby, at least in this case.

All this is brought out skilfully in nine brief chapters and a rather disconnected epilogue, fictionalising arguments already rehearsed. The account has a number of self-imposed limitations. The science of the subtitle is the action of science as an institution rather than the details of the technical work.

The politics here is strictly of the legislative variety, and the focus is mainly on the palace of Westminster. The book confines its attention to Britain, aside from a brief comparison with the history of United States regulation near the end.

Generally, the book is so well done that none of these limitations matters, though they leave plenty of other aspects of the debate for other writers to explore. The only serious weakness is the complete reliance on documentary evidence: newspapers, official reports and transcripts of debates in Hansard. Mulkay occasionally moves beyond interpretation into sheer speculation, particularly when he comes to policy decisions made more recently by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. A few well-chosen interviews would surely have repaid the effort here.

But with that proviso, this is an acute series of reflections on one of the key episodes in the politics of the life sciences in the last decade. As their advance attracts ever more public attention, the book is sure to be studied closely by all those with an interest in how we manage our new-found powers to control human reproduction.

Jon Turney is lecturer in science communication, University College London.

The Embryo Research Debate: Science and the Politics of Reproduction

Author - Michael Mulkay
ISBN - 0 521 57180 4 and 57683 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 212

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