The four votes on aspects of the Embryology Bill in the UK presented an opportunity for the religiously blinkered to put narrow-minded dogma before compassion and scientific progress. They were soundly and properly trounced.
It’s always good to see reason prevail. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill represents the most important development in fertility law in the past 20 years.
The UK, being largely free of the religiously inspired shackles that hamper scientific progress in other countries (including the US) is already a world leader in areas like stem cell research. This is important science: advances in embryology offer the possibility of cures for crippling and fatal diseases.
But not everyone is happy about this. The Roman Catholic church, for example, did its best to cripple this bill. It lobbied hard, placing enough pressure on the Government to force a free vote, so that Catholic members of Parliament could do their best to impose that church’s prejudices on the whole population of the UK.
There were four key issues:
- The use of hybrid or ‘admix’ embryos. This is where the nuclei of human cells are inserted into the egg of an animal, treated so that no characteristics of the animal remain. The resulting embryos are kept for only 14 days, in order to harvest stem cells.
- Tissue typing of embryos so that parents can choose to give birth to a ‘saviour sibling’. This would happen where a current child has a disease that could be alleviated or cured by having a sibling with the right tissue type.
- The removal of the need for a father when considering the eligibility of applicants for IVF treatment. This paves the way for lesbian couples and single women to receive the treatment.
- The reduction of the limit for abortions from the current 24 weeks to 20 weeks.
Each of these issues attracted an amendment attempting to ban the process or (in the case of abortions) lower the limit. All four amendments were defeated by very healthy margins.
In most cases, those opposed to the processes or treatments presented their case based on junk science or dubious statistics. It was painfully clear, however, that the motivation for the amendments was not built on evidence or reason but on religious prejudice.
In the case of hybrid embryos there was much gibberish talked about ‘Frankenstein’ babies and the creation of freaks. Yet these embryos would never be viable and are, in any case, destroyed after two weeks.
People argued that the creation of ‘saviour siblings’ is wrong. They talked about bringing a child into the world purely to provide ‘spare parts’ for an existing child. This argument is just as cretinous. It suggests that arms or livers might be harvested, which is pure nonsense. The saviour sibling provides bone marrow and other cells. And any idea that the saviour sibling might not be loved equally by his or her parents is clearly wrong: if anything, they are likely to love it even more for its role in saving the life of the older child.
The opposition to the changes in the IVF law centred around the idea that it would somehow marginalise men. I noticed that this argument was mostly put forward by men. It ties in with that tired old idea that a family is not complete without a father. That would be more convincing if all fathers were perfect. The truth is that, regardless of whether IVF is involved, many children are raised very successfully without one parent or the other. So this amendment was inspired by notions of the family that belong in the Victorian age, not in the 21st Century. And I think there was an unhealthy dose of faith-based homophobia in there too.
Abortion is a more emotive subject and one where the desire of a religious minority to impose its views on the whole of society was most clearly evident. The 24 week limit was set in 1990, based on the best scientific evidence about the viability of the fetus up to that point. Nothing has changed. No new evidence has come to light. Yet there were two attempts to push the limit back – first to 20 weeks and, when that failed, to 22 weeks. That failed too.
Some MPs wanted the limit reduced to 12 weeks, which is where it stands in some (mostly Catholic) countries, such as Spain. Many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 12 weeks.
The statistics make for interesting reading, though. In the UK, some 55% of abortions are carried out at under 9 weeks. This type of abortion usually involves nothing more than an injection. The fetus is reabsorbed by the body. (So much for its being a fully fledged human life. Could you have a clearer illustration of the fact that it is nothing more than a bunch of cells?) A very high percentage of pregnancies also spontaneously abort within this period, too – often without the woman ever knowing she was pregnant. That, too, doesn’t sit very well with the religious viewpoint and is a fact largely avoided by the anti-choice faithful.
A further third of abortions are carried out in the 9-12 week range. That means that 89% of abortions happen at 12 weeks or less anyway. In fact, only 1.5% of abortions happen in the 20-24 week band. And the vast majority of these are carried out for reasons of health complications or problems with the fetus.
So the ‘moral’ objection that so many proclaim is nothing of the sort. It is simply an attempt by a self-righteous few to impose their irrational, superstitious and medieval ideas on the whole of society. That’s arrogant and, given that they wrapped their arguments in pseudo-science and bad statistics, deeply dishonest.
Fortunately, rationality prevailed. So did compassion for those whose suffering may be relieved and whose lives may be saved by the science that will result from this bill.