December 7, 2022

More skirmishes in UK debate over fertility bill

Parliament prepares for debate

The approach of a debate over revisions of the UK’s fertility bill is stirring up a confusing dust storm of controversy in the British media. In one of the latest developments, the outspoken head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has appeared in a YouTube video arguing that the creation of hybrid embryos is immoral and unnecessary. Other opponents of hybrid embryos have challenged licences which have already been given to two research teams to created them. The Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics hope to show that hybrids are outside what is permitted under current legislation and that the UK’s fertility watchdog erred in allowing them.

In another late development, it appears that the revised act might allow deaf parents to create deaf embryos. British parents are already allowed to screen out embryos with serious medical conditions so that they can have a healthy child. Now it appears that the UK Department of Health has struck deafness from its list of serious medical conditions. This would effectively make it legal to screen embryos to create a deaf child who would fit more easily into a deaf home environment. The debate on this issue, however, is far from over. The deaf lobby is campaigning hard for the creation of deaf children, but many doctors are opposed.

Last year’s Nobel laureate in Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans, has hit back at opponents of embryonic stem cell research. Don’t be swayed by the "yuck factor", he says. "I think the point of debate really is: are the embryos that are being used for research fully-formed humans? To me and to many other scientists, knowing that these are just a small bunch of cells, the answer is No." He urged politicians to ignore "the emotive arguments of religiously motivated pressure groups".

And bioethicists and scientists lobbying for minimal regulation of stem cell research, the Hinxton Consortium, have pleaded with legislators not to put obstacles simply because there are differences of opinion over ethics. In particular, they backed research into the creation of artificial sperm and eggs, which they believe to be about 5 to 15 years away. The Hinxton Group includes two of the world’s leading utilitarian bioethicists, John Harris and Julian Savulescu, amongst its members. Hence it is not surprising that the consortium recommends a hand-off approach towards science. "Any interference with scientific inquiry should be derived from reasonable concerns about demonstrable risks of harm to persons, societal institutions, or society as a whole," it says.