Opinion: The great embryo debate

Introduction
Now that the dust of Crewe and Nantwich has settled, it might be worth revisiting some of the parliamentary divisions of last week. The figures for the abortion debate have already been picked over a little, and a few eyebrows have been raised at the voting patterns of various Liberal Democrat MPs. However, while it is only natural that abortion should grab all the attention, there is not too much cause for concern in those figures. I am avowedly pro-choice, but there is necessarily something arbitrary about the cut-off point for abortion, otherwise it would not be measured in multiples of a fortnight for a start. It is greatly to be welcomed that the status quo was maintained, but equally a reduction to 22 weeks would not have heralded the end of women’s rights as we know it.

So it is the debates and divisions of Monday 19 May pertaining to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on which I now wish to focus the attention for a moment. Broadly speaking, the day’s events split into two parts: measures to do with hybrid embryo research (with three divisions), and then measures concerned with saviour siblings (with three divisions). So as not to cast the net too widely, let us concentrate only upon the first half of the debate and its subsequent divisions which it will be useful to characterise as follows (technically, MPs were voting against opposition amendments rather than in favour of these measures):

  • Vote A – to permit the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos
  • Vote B – to permit the creation of true hybrid embryos
  • Vote C – to permit the creation of genetically modified hybrid embryos

The debate
Many emotive and specious arguments were made in opposition to these new genetic techniques, and a surprising number of them were to be found in the speech delivered by Sir Gerald Kaufman. The most popular of the afternoon was the assertion that there is no guarantee that embryo research will produce any medical cures in the foreseeable future. Well, that’s true I suppose! In this regard, Sir Gerald compared scientists to Shakespeare’s King Lear when he exclaimed, “I will do such things – what they are yet, I know not.”

The analogy was meant unkindly, but is in fact a near perfect description of how the frontier of science progresses – an accidental discovery here, a chance meeting at a scientific conference there and, many blind alleys later, a delicate thread of knowledge and understanding emerges. It should go without saying that if we had the whole project mapped out now, then we would have all the answers now. What they are yet, we know not indeed; and may not yet know for some time to come.

Bill Cash doesn’t get any better either. His chief concern appeared to be that treatments arising out of embryo research might be subject to commercial exploitation and would therefore not be universally available to all regardless of need – bless his little conservative heart! Though why his argument could not equally well apply to all manner of human enterprise was not clear. Cash also rambled on a great deal about the “avowed eugenicists” in our midst, causing visible embarrassment on his own benches. In fact no fewer than three Conservatives intervened against him in a bid to limit the damage.

Young David Burrowes went on at tedious length about how alternatives such as umbilical cord blood were proving so much more effective at providing remedies than embryo research – forgetting maybe that it is the role of Parliament to provide a regulatory framework for the granting of research licences, not to adjudicate on the most promising lines of inquiry based upon a layman’s grasp of the subject. As with so many of his comrades, one could not help feeling that Burrowes’s argument drew far more inspiration from Christian theology than from hard scientific evidence.

The star of the show was our very own Evan Harris. Displaying a complete mastery of both the scientific and legal technicalities of the Bill, Harris swatted away interventions with consummate ease. In a wide-ranging speech, he dealt with the numerous canards raised during the course of the debate. In particular, he dismissed the idea that we should abandon embryo research due to a paucity of cures as, “the worst argument that I have heard from opponents of the research,” pointing out that embryonic stem-cell research is all of five years old in the UK, while adult stem-cell trials have been ongoing for at least fifty years worldwide.

The results
Well that’s just a rough survey of the debate, inevitably skating over many contributions. But how did the results turn out? All of the above measures were carried easily – in each case with a majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs in favour of the gentle path of human progress, whilst a majority of Conservative MPs voted in line with their bizarre theological objections which stood up to scrutiny not at all during the course of a three hour debate. So pats on the back all round, and three cheers for Evan! Well . . . not quite so fast. The unhappy truth is that a closer inspection of the voting figures leaves much to be desired from a Liberal Democrat point of view.

Only 28 Lib Dem MPs – a mere 44% of the parliamentary party – were capable on the night of following Harris’s lead by ticking all three boxes A, B & C. Indeed fifteen MPs were apparently not capable of ticking any of the boxes at all, and voted against all three measures. Remember that no embryo may be kept beyond fourteen days. Remember that no embryo may be implanted. Remember that no research may be performed without a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Remember too that, according to legal advice received by the HFEA, cytoplasmic hybrid research is already permitted under the HFE Act of 1990.

Yet notwithstanding all of that, fifteen Liberal Democrat MPs clearly felt that the present Bill was a step too far and voted – potentially (it must be stressed) – to prolong the agony of sufferers. Their names are: Baker, Barrett, Breed, Cable, Carmichael, Farron, Hemming, Hunter, Mulholland, Pugh, Rowan, Teather, Thurso, Webb, Younger-Ross. How did these MPs justify their decision to Parliament? Well, they didn’t. Not one of them made a speech, though some of them were clearly present in the chamber. Of course time is always limited; they may have had a speech ready but were not called. They should feel free to post a summary of their objections in the comments below.

But that’s not all. A number of MPs who seemed quite content with the principle of cytoplasmic hybrids, baulked when it came to a consideration of true hybrid embryos. These are the full 50% human/animal hybrids – I know it’s shocking. So in Vote B, a further eleven Liberal Democrat MPs joined the above list in an attempt to block this confounded measure. What were they thinking of exactly? Centaurs maybe? These poor confused souls are: Brooke, Burt, Gidley, Hancock, Reid, Rogerson, Russell, Stunell, Swinson, Williams M, Williams R. So on this particular measure, it came to pass that a total of 26 Lib Dem MPs entered the same lobby as the worst elements of the Conservative party plus Ruth Kelly. Did they think nobody would notice?

Conclusions
Look at the picture at the top of the page. What do you see? Is it a human embryo or a cytoplasmic hybrid? Or maybe it’s a full hybrid? Does it look like it has been genetically modified in any way? Perhaps it’s not a human embryo at all? Maybe it’s a mouse embryo? Or perhaps it’s just some bacteria? It’s kind of hard to tell, don’t you think? Maybe those who insist on drawing clear ethical distinctions between such various entities should consider that they are, to all intents and purposes, identical in nature up to the cut off point of fourteen days. Until then, we’re just talking about an undifferentiated ball of cells. All things considered, we probably ought to manifest greater ethical considerations towards a bumble bee.

But there is also an important strategic consideration to be taken into account here, which is really the point of my article. It is quite clear, following the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, that David Cameron is out of the traps and on course to win the next general election. Much could go wrong for him yet, but a Conservative win must now be the most likely outcome on present trends. In expectation of having our own vote squeezed as it was in Crewe, Liberal Democrats desperately need a distinctive “narrative,” as we keep saying, to distinguish ourselves clearly from the Conservatives in the mind of the electorate.

Yet here is a perfect narrative laid out for us on a plate, and we spurn it. We could be the true inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition, carrying the torch aloft for reason, science, and human progress; while the Conservatives are, as ever, backward, reactionary, disingenuous, their thinking clouded by a medieval theology of the soul – a theology whose logical endpoint must surely be that we commit genocide every time we scratch our chins. Cameron’s own voting pattern speaks volumes – he turned up for the first division before disappearing into the night. Perhaps duty called. Or maybe the prospect of being cast as a rebel within his own party for six divisions on the trot was just too embarrassing for words.

I would love to see Liberal Democrats in a position to exploit this tension between Cameron and the remainder of his party, and to expose the true nature of his backbenchers who, taken as a group, voted against every single one of these progressive measures. The plain truth is that a Conservative government could never have introduced this Bill into Parliament, (and we should pause for a moment to applaud the leadership shown by Gordon Brown on this occasion). But before we may open fire on the Conservatives with a degree of credibility, it would appear that we first need to deal with some deeply conservative attitudes lurking amongst a few of our own MPs. Nearly half of them in fact.

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51 Comments

  • Great article and I think it speaks for all of us who are involved in science.

    There are many many possibilities for stem cell research, and to have so many MP’s who are simply ignorant about science voting on this is staggering.

  • You could compare this to those Tory Mp’s who voted against the repeal of the blashpemy law to. You can have your own personal convictions but they should not interfere in the running of our secular (in practice) and (sometimes) rational country.

    Come on Lib Dems! Feels like I’m supporting a football team. I just want you to be rational, intelligent and proud of being so.

  • I’m pretty ignorant of how the Lib Dems are run (forgive me), do they use whips?

  • Lawrence, the foundations of Liberalism do not rest upon one deeply contentious embyology bill. So calling half the Parliamentary party conservative is not really very fire.

    I’ve gotta say (and I have come to the conclusion that the hybrid embryo thing is too important for research to stop) that your approach is much the same as your hero Harris. Mocking, sneering and absolutist,Evan Harris has burnt all his bridges and is disliked and distrusted.

    You need to allow for more facets of thought, belief and philosophy, you need to accept that our party is an orchestra of opinion, not a drum pounding out one message over and over again.

  • that should have been, *calling them conservative is not really very fair*

  • this article was concerned with hybrid embryo’s.

    Secondly, there is a liberal argument that can be made for the pro life debate, based upon the right to life, opportunity and happiness of the unborn child.

    To take a pro life stance is not being anti women or illiberal. As I said before, our party and the wider Liberal cause is a multi faceted, diverse movement.

  • I heartily agree with the sentiments of the article, and the benefits of being a more stridently pro-science party. This is simply a way of making large quantities of high-quality stem cells, nothing more. If a way was found to greatly increase the potency of adult stem cells, so that they could conceivably turn into an embryo, would that be wrong as well?

  • Hywel Morgan 31st May '08 - 12:59pm

    “They don’t? Women’s rights don’t matter then?”

    Allowing scientists to create hybrid embryo’s isn’t really a womans rights issue in the classical sense.

    “the benefits of being a more stridently pro-science party”

    What does this mean – scientific truth is hardly a fixed standard. Some of the concentration camp experiments were about science (and using the results caused serious ethical dilemmas after WWII) but were hardly justifiable.

    I’m glad there are serious divisions in parliament about the use of hybrid human-animal embryos. On balance I would probably have supported many of the proposals – it’s a small step into an ethically unpleasant area but has potentially great benefits. But to portray it as a black and white issue is a grotesque over-simplification.

  • Since WWII we’ve had Nuremburg, Helsinki and many other ways to address ethics in medicine.

    Please do not disregard the works of great people so easily.

    This ‘Division’ only goes to show the ignorance of these MP’s of the true nature of modern science and it’s principles.

  • Hywel Morgan 31st May '08 - 10:48pm

    “Since WWII we’ve had Nuremburg, Helsinki and many other ways to address ethics in medicine.

    Please do not disregard the works of great people so easily.”

    I don’t. But none of those are enforceable as the law in the UK unless incorporated into legislation.

    Plus the fact that Helsinki has been revised since the original shows how developments need an adaptation in our ethical codes – and laws. I’m not sure whether Helsinki would actually covers hybrid human-animal embryos in any case.

    John’s point about CO research is even where we have laws and ethics codes the key point is how well they are policed

    “I disagree Hywel. Up to fourteen days, it is black and white. It’s a ball of cells – nothing more.”

    Well it’s a ball of hybrid human-animal cells which is something that doesn’t naturally exist so it is something more than a normal embryo – there aren’t many scientists who are gung-ho about accepting that there are no issues about going down that route.

    Assuming that we have objections to the creation of viable hybrid life what we are talking about is a matter of degree and setting an appropriate cut off point.

    Setting that at the point before cells become differentiated (I think that’s the development of the primitive streak but I might have that wrong) seems not unreasonable.

    That means it needs some thought about where we are going and why – not an approach of “it’s science so we should give it the go ahead”

  • So bioethics has never existed and will never be consulted. All hail the MP’s, the great researchers in the sky, they will give us the guidelines we need to make sure we are a backwards scientific country. (Well at least we do have a majority of rational MP’s)

  • Well then campaign to change that, don’t halt genuine research because of flaws in the system.

    Scientists are under more scutiny then any other field of work, to an extent they are self policing (with ethical boards and peer review).

    I do agree that the enforcement of ethics need to be reviewed.

  • The opinions of Evan Harris should not be identified with those of the Party, especially on this issue. The opinion poll carried out for the Times (10 April) showed that LibDim voters were more sceptical than Labour or Tory voters about the value of this research (less than 50% supporting it). This is unncessary and unethical research pushed through by hype and I am glad that many MPs, including my own LibDem MP had the courage to see that.

  • “The opinions of Evan Harris should not be identified with those of the Party, especially on this issue.”

    Dr Evan Harris MP has appeared on Newsnight to defend Professor Sir Roy Meadow and Dr David Southall. Like Plato, he believes that laypersons (including judges and elected politicians) must not be allowed to question “experts” or hold them to account in any way.

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