Guest leader: A victory for all humanity

MPs have voted for common sense and common cause in passing the Human Fertilisation Bill intact, says Mary Warnock

May 29, 2008

The House of Commons has shown admirable good sense in passing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill unamended. The Bill started in the House of Lords, where the debate was long and exceptionally well informed. It is an update of the 1990 Act, which had also started in the Lords, and on to which, again, the anti-abortion lobby had tacked some amendments. These amendments, aimed at lowering the gestational age at which a healthy foetus might be aborted, were all rejected last week on a free vote. The last amendment in this group, which would have brought the age down from 24 to 22 weeks, was the most near to success, but was plainly futile, since the survival rate for babies born at 22, 23 and 24 weeks has not changed, and the number of abortions carried out at this stage of gestation is a tiny proportion of all abortions, 90 per cent of which take place before 13 weeks. It was a desperate effort on the part of anti-abortionists to get a toe through the legislative door.

The issue that caused a furore in both houses was that of the "need for a father". Probably mistakenly, a clause was put into the 1990 Act laying down that clinics should provide in vitro fertilisation treatment to women only if they took into account the need of any child for a father. (I had always kept quiet about this requirement even though I did not like it. Being a posthumous child, I felt unqualified to speak about the terrible effects of the absence of a father.)

In fact, this part of the law was almost entirely disregarded. Doctors did not like prying into the lives of women applying for IVF. As far as records show, no one was ever turned down on these grounds, so it did not much matter whether the clause stayed or went. But its removal was widely regarded as "sending a signal" that fatherhood had become redundant. Sending signals is not, in my view, what legislation is for; it is for changing behaviour. And families without fathers are already commonplace. But some of the most impassioned debate has been on this omission from the new Bill.

The most welcome victory for science and medicine is the survival of the clauses permitting the creation of admixed human embryos for research, especially stem-cell research and research into the faulty development of cells involved in conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease. Scientists at Newcastle University and King's College London are ready to start work, their research already having been licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority but held up until the legal position was clear.

Opponents of these clauses argued that to create embryos by placing human DNA in a denucleated cow's egg was to cross a God-given species boundary. In this, they relied heavily on the so-called yuck factor as well as on religious belief. However, they tended to reinforce their case by the assertion that the research was unlikely to be medically useful or that it could be carried out by different means.

Nevertheless, the general view of science and medicine is that the new knowledge will eventually prove crucial in overcoming hitherto intractable diseases. Of course they cannot prove that this is so, but without experimenting they can never find out. The new law is an endorsement of a principle that has proved its worth since 1990: that the regulation of biological science must be light enough to allow freedom to imaginative scientists to look into the future, as well as to increase the sum of human understanding.

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