May 30, 2024

Dissident MPs rattle UK government in debate over fertility law

MPs are calling for a conscience vote on controversial bill

Gordon BrownUpdating Britain’s fertility
legislation could be one of the most political controversial events of
the year. Gordon Brown’s Labour government has told its MPs
that they may abstain but not oppose the Human Fertilisation and
Embryology Bill. But the government is under increasing pressure to
allow a conscience
vote. Three ministers are reportedly ready to digin their heels and
vote against it: Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, Defence
Secretary Des Browne and Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy. Last week more
than 100 academics, including abortion supporters and at least one
IVF specialist, wrote a letter in the London Times calling for a
free vote.

Amongst other controversial features,
the bill provides
for the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos and for lesbian
couples to be registered as joint legal parents of their IVF
children. The government insists
that this is important legislation. Like his predecessor Tony Blair,
Gordon Brown is
keen to make Britain a world leader in stem cell research and has
the insistence of some scientists that therapeutic cloning and the
creating of hybrid embryos are needed to achieve this. Now the ethical
qualms of recalcitrant MPs are proving an embarrassment to the
government. “Whilst I entirely respect
the strong moral sensitivities of colleagues,” says Chief Whip Geoff Hoon, “there are also strong moral sensitivities in
relation to research into a number of appalling diseases and

The ever-simmering debate on abortion
may come to a boil as well. Some MPs will attempt to
amend the bill to reduce the upper time limit for terminations. It
maintains the 24-week upper limit and reduces the number of doctors
who must approve the procedure from two to one.

Hostile comments about the UK’s
fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, are also in the news.
The Telegraph published a letter from about 40 MPs who complained that
the HFEA had already licensed two research groups to create hybrid
embryos even though this was not covered by current legislation. This
“makes a mockery of Parliament,” they wrote. “An
unelected body is pronouncing on issues that have yet to be
considered by the democratically elected House of Commons”. The
chairman of the HFEA later responded that its decision had been within the
letter of the law and had actually been encouraged by the Commons Science and
Technology Committee. ~ Telegraph, Mar 3,5; Mirror, Feb 27