Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

The Times has published a letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor , Archbishop of Westminster, on the subject of The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which has just been introduced into the legislative process in the House of Lords where it has just obtained its Second Reading.

It is a government sponsored Bill of great length and complexity. It raises many difficult and complex ethical problems.

In his letter, the cardinal calls for a free vote to be given to members of Parliament in both Houses in regard to the Bill. This is unlikely to be conceded by the Government.

In his letter, the Cardinal said:

"Sir, The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Lords today, raises three issues of particular importance.

One is the quality of regulation. New research techniques, and most recently licences for research on human-animal hybrids, have been pushed forward with inadequate attention to the long-term ethical problems they pose. The Bill does nothing to remedy this. It should be used to create a statutory national bioethics commission bringing together a broad spectrum of experts with a clear mandate and an independent role. Only such an authoritative and independent body can ensure that serious ethical scrutiny is no longer an afterthought but a precondition of such research.

Secondly, the Bill proposes to remove the need for IVF providers to take into account the child’s need for a father when considering an IVF application, and to confer legal parenthood on people who have no biological relationship to a child born as a result of IVF. This radically undermines the place of the father in a child’s life, and makes the natural rights of the child subordinate to the desires of the couple. It is profoundly wrong.

Thirdly, this Bill can and will be used by all sides to seek a change in the abortion law. Debates about this will easily generate much more heat than light unless the energy of both sides is focused on the right question, which is: “Given that 200,000 abortions a year is far too many, how can a deliverable change in the law most effectively reduce that number?” Of course the law is only one aspect of what needs to change if that number is to come down significantly. But it would send a powerful and necessary message if Parliament were to amend the abortion law with the clear intent not of making abortion easier, but, as a first step, of making it rarer.

The many serious ethical issues raised by this Bill require that Members of both Houses are given a free vote in accordance with their conscience, not only on the abortion issue but the Bill as a whole. Opposition parties are already allowing this, and I urge the Government to do likewise.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor

Archbishop of Westminster "

It is clear that it is not just the Catholic Church which has grave reservations about the Bill. This is evident from the Second Reading Debate in the House of Lords.

The Second Reading Debates were on 19th and 21st November 2007. They are reported here and here.

It is due to be considered in Committee on 3rd December 2007.

More details about the Bill including the Bill, Explanatory Notes, Amendment Papers and Proceedings can be accessed here.

In the Second Reading Debate, a member of the Joint Committee which met before the Bill was introduced, the Anglican Bishop of St Albans said:

"It is relatively easy to expose the ethical issues by asking a simple question: does the kind of scientific endeavour and therapeutic treatment which this Bill allows need regulation at all and why not let scientific and therapeutic market forces rip? As soon as one asks the question one begins to realise what some of the ethical issues are. Unregulated research and treatment could jeopardise our common understanding of what it means to be human; it could jeopardise our understanding of what we believe to be the meaning and purpose of human life; it could jeopardise our understanding of human relationships; and an unregulated free-for-all could and might lead to the unscrupulous treatment of the most vulnerable and could and might lead to some appalling abuses of power.

I outline again the four major philosophical ethical areas: first, the meaning of our humanity; secondly, the meaning and purpose of our lives; thirdly, the meaning, purpose and value of human relationships; and, fourthly, the right use of power. Those four ethical issues are accompanied by others—for example, because we have the ability to carry out research and treatment, how do we decide whether we should, and what criteria should we use to determine this? How are we to decide whether the kind of research and treatment outlined by the Bill is likely to harm or enhance individuals in society? And, conversely, what might be the effects on individuals in society if we fail to carry out the proposed research and treatment? In my view the moral questions inherent in the Bill tumble over each other in rapid succession.

I again remind noble Lords that our ability in the Joint Committee to tackle some of those questions was hampered by two things—first, as I have said, lack of time, and, secondly, having to spend time on whether the HFEA and the HTA should be coalesced into RATE. That proposal has wisely been abandoned, but the time the Joint Committee spent on that could have been spent on some of the ethical questions. In that committee some of us became aware of both the significance and the accuracy of what Sir Liam Donaldson described as the, “deficit in medical ethics in this country”.

Some consider that medical ethics are somehow subservient to the science being undertaken. The then Minister said in her evidence to us:

“It is a mixture of science and ethics in these areas and part of getting the ethics right is taking public opinion with you in terms of support for the science”.

I do not share that utilitarian view of ethics.
[emphasis added]

Our lack of time as a committee also meant that we were unable to explore in as much depth as some of us would have liked not only the questions I have outlined, but the one that is key to this whole enterprise: what is the moral status of the human embryo? Does every embryo from the moment of fertilisation have a unique indelible moral status or does the moral status of the embryo change as the embryo develops? I recognise that the Warnock report—and many philosophers and theologians have before and since—debated this question, but ethically that question lies at the heart of this Bill, and, because of changes in science and technology and changes in public attitudes, it needs to be debated again.

I have read something about the science involved in human fertility research and treatment. I found much of that science breathtakingly interesting. I recognise that it is carried out in some instances with remarkable humility—it is very moving—but I am among those who believe that this Bill is of such fundamental importance that greater and further consideration of the ethical issues should and must be given.

I share the view of the Joint Committee that a joint bioethics committee of Parliament should be set up. If noble Lords want the details they should look at paragraph 295 on page 77 of the Joint Committee's report. I hope that that recommendation will be acted on as a matter of urgency. Such a committee should be appointed not to provide retrospective reflection on legislation but to provide a lot of prospective thinking.

We hear much—even today we have heard much—about impact assessments. What is the point of impact assessments if they do not include the ethical dimensions of the issues before us? Of course I recognise the beauty and humanity of much of the science, but it would be tragic if that beauty and humanity were to be damaged by any deficit in ethical thinking in this Parliament. It would be even more appalling if those who might be brought to birth as a result of the proposals outlined asked of us: “Why? Why were they in such a rush? Why didn’t they have the courage or the wisdom to give deep and long consideration to the morality of the proposals before rushing into law?”.

The Bill is not only about us in our generation. It is not only about our place in the world scientifically and technologically. It is also potentially about generations of people yet to come. It seems to me that we owe it to them to ensure that we give as much attention to the ethics as we do to the science and to the regulatory mechanisms. It is for their sake that we must get the ethics, and therefore the legislation, right."

It is interesting to note that the ethos behind the Government`s appoach to the subject is strictly utilitarian. This is shown even more by the speeches of the Government spokesmen who spoke in the debates. The Government do not wish to debate the serious and complex ethical issues involved in the subject. The Bill is a hurried attempt to deal with the subject in a cack-handed and superficial manner.