The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

My normal columns are usually about local issues – Post Offices, parking and so on. But I know national issues matter to local people too, and one of the touchiest at the moment is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill – and whether MPs will vote to represent their constituents, their party line or their conscience.

So much of the media coverage and debate over the Bill has been on whether or not Labour should or would allow a ‘free vote’. But all this focus on the logistics of the political process misses two points.

First – the political process story is being presented as if the only way that Labour MPs get to vote with their conscience is if there is a free vote. That’s wrong – a vote being whipped doesn’t suddenly mean all choice is taken away from you. Sure – it’s harder to vote ‘the other way’ if there’s a three line whip in place, but we shouldn’t be so blinded by the Parliamentary whipping system as to think that if a whip is in place you have all your freedom of choice removed. And indeed- the more it is a matter of deeply held conscience to you, the easier it should be to ignore what the whips say and vote the way your head or heart tells you.

Second – all the process stuff has so dominated discussion that we are in danger of losing the larger moral picture. How can I look in the eye of a constituent who is suffering from a disease such as Alzheimer’s and say, “I am going to oppose giving scientists the best possible chance to cure your disease?”

Letting scientists use the empty shell of an animal cell (one without its nucleus) to house human genetic material and then create cells from that for use in research does not get anywhere near some of the extreme “Frankenstein monster” type arguments that have been rolled out.

When it comes to health care there are many difficult issues – too many opportunities, and not enough money to pay for them all (regardless of which party is setting spending levels). But when we have opportunities that resources do allow – how can I turn my back on people and say, “No, I don’t want the best research carried out into healing you?”

For me, the only moral, conscionable choice is to say – “yes, we’re going to do our best to give scientists a chance of curing your disease”.

I appreciate some people will disagree with that – but for me too, this is a moral choice. Not being a Christian myself, I am naturally wary of telling Christians how they should interpret their religious beliefs, but I am taken by the interpretation many American Christians have taken during the similar debates over stem cells in the US: in the words of Senator Claire McCaskill, “My faith directs me to heal the sick. God gave us the miracle of human intelligence to find cures … I come down on the side of hope, hope for cures and supporting science”.

Whether we believe human intelligence is a creature of God or not, we should all come down on the side of helping the sick and the ill by supporting the search for cures.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008