Updating 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 accepted 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 conditions”.
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