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Comment on the Comments

William Oddie FAITH Magazine May-June 2008s



The biggest moral issue for Catholics in English politics during this year of grace 2008 will surely, in the perspective of history, turn out to have been the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, introduced into Parliament by the Government in November, with the intention that it will become law early in 2009. So far it has been debated only in the Lords: but what has so far been said gives no confidence that what has surely to be seen as a major step towards the radical de-Christianisation of English culture will come up against any opposition that has a chance of success.

The government’s original intention was (and may still be) to steam-roller this Bill into Law by imposing a three-line whip on own supporters. Its key proposals, as explained by the Health department in a list of brisk bullet points, are as follows:

1. Ensuring that all human embryos outside the body – whatever the process used in their creation – are subject to regulation.
2. Regulation of “inter-species” embryos created from a combination of human and animal genetic material for research.
3. A ban on sex selection of offspring for non-medical reasons.
4. Retention of a duty to take account of the welfare of the child in providing fertility treatment, but removal of the reference to “the need for a father”.
5. Recognising same-sex couples as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos.
6. Altering the restrictions on the use of data collected by the regulator to make it easier to do follow-up research.
7. Increasing the scope of legitimate embryo research activities, subject to controls.
The dismantling of the two-parent family based on marriage is, of course, now well advanced; the glib expression ‘removal of the reference to “the need for a father”,’ in article 4, assumes in its casual way that here is a battle that has already been long won and lost. The signs are that the Catholic Church will at least make its voice heard when the Bill comes to be debated in the Commons: but any hope that the C of E will come up to scratch seems, on the evidence so far available, dubious to say the least. The Cardinal kicked off with a letter to The Times (widely reported in other papers) to coincide with the Bill’s second reading in the Lords, a contribution which contrasted remarkably with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, made from the dark red benches on the same day theCardinal’s letter appeared. A comparison of the two is instructive: they are worth reproducing in full to make the point.

Here is the Cardinal’s letter:

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Lords today, raises three issues of particular importance.

One is the quality of regulation. New research techniques, and most recently licences for research on human-animal hybrids, have been pushed forward with inadequate attention to the long-term ethical problems they pose. The Bill does nothing to remedy this. It should be used to create a statutory national bioethics commission bringing together a broad spectrum of experts with a clear mandate and an independent role. Only such an authoritative and independent body can ensure that serious ethical scrutiny is no longer an afterthought but a precondition of such research.

Secondly, the Bill proposes to remove the need for IVF providers to take into account the childs need for a father when considering an IVF application, and to confer legal parenthood on people who have no biological relationship to a child born as a result of IVF. This radically undermines the place of the father in a childs life, and makes the natural rights of the child subordinate to the desires of the couple. It is profoundly wrong.

Thirdly, this Bill can and will be used by all sides to seek a change in the abortion law. Debates about this will easily generate much more heat than light unless the energy of both sides is focused on the right question, which is: Given that 200,000 abortions a year is far too many, how can a deliverable change in the law most effectively reduce that number? Of course the law is only one aspect of what needs to change if that number is to come down significantly. But it would send a powerful and necessary message if Parliament were to amend the abortion law with the clear intent not of making abortion easier, but, as a first step, of making it rarer.

The many serious ethical issues raised by this Bill require that Members of both Houses are given a free vote in accordance with their conscience, not only on the abortion issue but the Bill as a whole. Opposition parties are already allowing this, and I urge the Government to do likewise.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

The excellent Fr Bryan Storey, in a typically terse four word comment on The Timess blog, called it ‘light in the darkness’: and certainly, it was a serious and – in only 369 words – a remarkably meaty contribution, clear and not mealy-mouthed: the simple sentence ‘it is profoundly wrong’ is in a different moral universe from the kind of thing we have come to expect from Dr (I nearly said ‘Professor’) Rowan Williams. Here, if you can credit it, was the entire contribution of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Lords debate. He is referring to the question of human-animal hybrid embryos; and he does not, it will be noted, utter anything so obvious as ‘it is profoundly wrong’:

I want just to echo some of the anxieties that have been raised in the past few minutes. I share entirely the unease of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, about the phrase, the human end of the spectrum, which seems to introduce a very unhelpful element of uncertainty. Given that some of the major moral reservations around this Bill, which have been expressed broadly both in the country and in your Lordships House, pivot upon the concern that this is legislation which is gradually but inexorably moving towards a more instrumental view of how we may treat human organisms, any lack of clarity in this area seems fatally compromising and ambiguous. I hope that we can have some further clarity in this afternoonsdiscussion.

That was it. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s big chance to make a substantial contribution to the debate on the Bill’s second reading: an extempore intervention (that it was unprepared is indicated by the barely coherent assertion that ‘any lack of clarity in this area seems fatally compromising and ambiguous’) of 124 words. If the archbishop had already made any other contribution on the issue I have at the time of writing been unable to find it: perhaps he is keeping his powder dry (though the martial metaphor will almost certainly turn out to be comically inappropriate).

A Christian case against these developments seems unlikely, on present evidence, to be put with any coherence or conviction by anyone but Catholics: so of course, it will be thought that ‘religious objections’ are obscurantist and irrelevant. The Anglicans either do not seem to be clear what the issues are or are wholly convinced by ‘progressive’ arguments. Lord Harries, formerly Bishop of Oxford, gave an interview to Helen Rumbelow and Alice Miles from The Times, which began, with excruciating coyness, ‘it isn’t often that you get to meet God.

Happily, we can report that He turns out to be a charming, sandy-haired grandfather with more than a passing resemblance to an ageing Gregory Peck.’ ‘What if’, they asked him, ‘a part-rabbit, part-baby turned up at the Gates of Heaven: would it have a human soul? Lord Harries instinctively brought his hand to his dog collar, and kept it there at his throat while trying to answer. “I’d rather not say if it is human, rather that it is seen to have predominantly human genetic make-up. From a religious point of view it is impossible to say.’ So there you have it. As for experiments on human embryos, ‘I don’t regard that very early embryo, which is just a small bundle of multiplying cells, as having the rights of a human being’. He was also clear enough about the removal of the reference inthe existing legislation to ‘the need for a father’: as he put it, ‘That should go. I don’t think it’s very useful because I think studies have shown that two people of the same sex together can be good parents.’ Bishops of Oxford don’t usually get a peerage on their retirement: but you can see why the government gave one to a useful chap like Richard Harries.

Catholics are going to be, if not entirely on their own, not exactly part of a united Christian front either. That there are huge moral issues involved here seems, all the same, obvious enough. Nevertheless, the government is (or was when we went to press) determined not to allow its own backbenchers any freedom of conscience when it comes to the main vote in the Commons. According to the Telegraph, ‘A Government source said last night (i.e. on March 2) : “This is a vital Bill and the Prime Minister has taken a close interest. That means we have to get it through. But when you are talking about people’s religious beliefs, particularly among Cabinet ministers, then it creates problems”.’ The Telegraph claimed that Gordon Brown was ‘facing a rebellion by Roman CatholicCabinet ministers’. According to this account, ‘three senior Cabinet ministers Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, and Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary threaten[ed] to resist the order because of their religious beliefs,’ though ‘Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary and another Catholic, is understood to have raised no objections.’ Brown was reported to be looking for a way out of this impasse: the Telegraph claimed that ‘the Cabinet revolt has forced him to think again’ and that ‘One solution now being considered is giving MPs the option of abstaining in the key vote on the Bill’: but, ‘Some staunch Catholic MPs say even being allowed to abstain is not enough and instead want to be free to vote against the Bill, or amend it to remove somemeasures’. We shall see, and perhaps we already have. Downing Street allowed onto its website a petition for a free vote: this may turn out to be an excuse for Mr Brown to back down, though petitions in the past have looked more like an opportunity for Downing Street to demonstrate its absolute contempt for public opinion: there were, after all, several petitions for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (one of them with over 108,000 signatures) and they were ignored precisely becausethere was overwhelming public opinion against the government for a referendum and against the treaty. All the same, if there is a good vote on the Downing Street petition, it might embolden Labour members to defy the whips (the Tories and Liberals, of course, already have a free vote). The petitionreads as follows: ‘We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to allow free votes on the embryology and fathers components of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill when considered by the House of Commons’.

You can ‘sign’ it by going to

The deadline is May 13.

Faith Magazine