Scientists fear pro-life hijacking of debate

January 30, 2004

MPs' decision to allow the public to direct the first stage of a select committee inquiry into legislation governing human reproductive technologies has sparked controversy among scientists.

In an unprecedented move, the Commons science and technology committee launched its investigation - which will look at fertility treatments and research using embryos - with a public debate on sex selection last week.

Over the next six weeks, the committee will attempt to widen the net with a special consultation website.

It will use the public's views to direct its questioning when it begins interviewing witnesses in June.

Marcus Pembry, a clinical geneticist who spoke at last week's debate, told The THES : "It is very difficult for people who are coming cold to a topic to understand the issues and how these translate into practicalities in terms of drawing lines in clinical practice or the law."

He argued that sensitive issues such as sex selection were best resolved through a proper discussion between "the medical professional who is bringing their expertise and the couple who are bringing their own experience".

John Harris, professor of bioethics at Manchester University, who also took part in the debate, described the committee's approach as "worrying".

He said: "I am sceptical about public consultation, not because I don't believe we ought to know what the public thinks, but because the way consultation is carried out is not precise enough.

"It doesn't distinguish between the public's prejudices and moral values.

What I think is a good thing is not the same as what I would allow."

Pro-life lobby groups and religious organisations formed a large part of the audience at last week's debate, prompting fears that they would attempt to manipulate any public consultation process.

Professor Harris said: "My impression is that lobby groups are very active indeed. They are successful in hijacking both the debate and the way it is framed."

Media coverage of the debate was dominated this week by an exchange between Professor Harris and a representative of pressure group Pro-Life. Professor Harris suggested that, in philosophical terms, there was no change in the moral status of a baby immediately before and after birth.

When asked about infanticide, he said that everything should be open to consideration.

Ian Gibson, chairman of the select committee, confirmed that he had some doubts about allowing someone from the pro-life lobby to open the debate.

He said: "We know they are very vocal, but you can't just ignore them."

He added: "Where are all the scientists who should be speaking out on these issues? The pro-life groups could make a difference to the sort of research that is carried out in this country - they certainly tried to on stem cells."

Josephine Quintavalle, director of the pro-life campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, welcomed the committee's decision to open up the inquiry into these "huge ethical issues" to the public.

She said: "The public must know what is going on, and they must be made to take responsibility for the way society develops."

Tom Baldwin, deputy chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which oversees work in this area, dismissed as academic snobbery claims that the public could not understand the issues. He said: "People exaggerate the difficulties."

He said the HFEA's own public survey on sex selection, which revealed major opposition to the procedure for social reasons, had shown people wanted to be involved in the debate.

But he added that the HFEA had tried different ways of consulting the public and found that engaging people in informed discussions in focus groups worked better than approaching them "raw" through consultations.


Online consultation: A hypothetical scenario presented by the Commons select committee for discussion: A couple wish to have a child. The woman is a carrier of the gene for Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.

The couple wish to select a female embryo using sperm sorting, which, if successful, would ensure that the child did not develop the condition (although there is a 50 per cent chance that she would be a carrier). The couple state that they have ethical objections to pre-implantation diagnosis and in vitro fertilisation as it involves the destruction of embryos, so they wish to have a child using sperm sorting.

There is concern that the couple are using the risk of an affected child as a means of selecting a girl. Should the regulators allow them to go ahead?

* Legal status: sperm sorting is lawful; current policy is to license for sex selection only to patients with clear and overriding medical indications.

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