I cannot think of anything else that so commands one's grasp of morality, of right versus wrong, as the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill. It represents one of the biggest opportunities for British lawmakers to vote their conscience since the 2003 Iraq War consensus.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown will allow ministers to vote their conscience by allowing a free vote on the bill. Originally, Mr. Brown refused such a vote. However, ministers will still be highly expected to vote the party line, thus supporting the Labour Government in passing the law. Brown and other Bill supporters assert that it will lead to major advances in medicine and the treatment of fatal diseases. Human-animal hybrid embryos are to be used to this end.
Catholic ministers objected, and they were supported by the Roman Catholic church which attacked the proposed Bill. Many churchmen used their Easter sermons to criticize the legislation.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said, "I think Catholics in politics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions … Certainly, there are some aspects of this Bill on which I believe there ought to be a free vote, because Catholics and others will want to vote according to their conscience. I don't think it should be subject to the party whip."
Facing a rebellion that threatened to escalate into a serious crisis, Brown gave in to the free vote. Refusing a vote of conscience to Catholic ministers (and others who desired a vote of conscience) could have sown a rebellion, with resignations possibly ensuing, thus undermining Brown's authority. Also, with Labour down in the polls, Brown reckoned now was not the time to assert said authority.
Former Labour Cabinet minister Stephen Byers warned of the possible backlash. "The public will look on in disbelief," Byers said, "if a matter as sensitive as the creation of human-animal embryos is made a matter of party policy with the Government instructing its MPs (ministers) how to vote."
The dissension over the Bill has sparked a war of words between its supporters and the Church. Cardinal Keith O'Brien denounced the legislation as "a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life." O'Brien also asserted that the Bill would allow for experiments of "Frankenstein proportion."
Fertility expert and Labour peer Lord Robert Winston, however, replied that: "His statements are lying. They are misleading and I'm afraid that when the Church, for good motives, tells untruths, it brings discredit upon itself … [I]t will be destroying its probity with overblown statements of this kind."
I stand with the Catholics on this matter. The proposed Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill is indeed, in O'Brien's words, a monstrous attack on human dignity. Earth-shattering enough that human DNA would be inserted into animal cells for research, but the legislation would also allow for "spare parts," where a sibling embryo would be created, having been tested for compatibility with a child suffering from a serious medical condition, simply for the purpose of using its tissue to treat the ill child. On the surface, that certainly seems like a marvelous advance. But does this not ultimately treat the child as a commodity rather than a human being?
The Church's — and my — view is that just because mankind can do something awesome doesn't necessarily mean he should do it. What future horrors will science visit upon us, under the placating title of "research," and should we perhaps consider not playing God? Catholic MP Stephen Pound has said, "We seem to be moving into a sphere where we are actually taking on the role of the creation of life." I totally agree. It behooves us to leave the management of life to nature or God, whichever one chooses to believe in.
There is another aspect to the Bill that is troubling. The legislation, to its credit, would reduce the 24-week limit on abortions to 20 weeks. But women being counseled for fertilization would not be asked about the baby's father nor encouraged to seek a father involved in the child's care and upbringing. The "need for a father," which is the current law regarding the approval of patients for fertilization treatment and which the Goverment considers discriminatory, will simply be changed to "the need for supportive parenting." Fatherhood would be enshrined by law as nothing more than a commodity, a father's important role in bringing up a child rendered moot. This bill would be a victory for militant feminists, but a huge loss to men everywhere. This would have to represent the biggest threat to fatherhood in recent memory.