Will Labour allow a free vote on embryo bill?

The Easter weekend row over Labour’s refusal to say if they will let their MPs have a free vote on legislation which allows the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos for research rumbles on. The BBC website today reports speculation that at least one Catholic cabinet minister, Paul Murphy, would quit rather than support the bill; Ruth Kelly and Des Browne are also mentioned.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have confirmed a free vote will be granted to their MPs, though the Lib Dems’ science spokesman Evan Harris has made clear his views on the issue:

From a religious point of view, it seems right that we should use God-given powers of science to create short-term entities that are microscopic that might be a way of showing us how to develop stem cells from embryos that might be used to treat people with terrible diseases.”

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39 Comments

  • Paul Griffiths 22nd Mar '08 - 6:42pm

    Very roughly, I think a “matter of conscience” is one which for one’s political philosophy provides no definitive response or guidance. It is, of course, open to dispute as to what those matters are.

    For example, when Federal Conference debated physician-assisted suicide in 2004, some argued that this was not a proper subject for the party to take a position on, since it was so obviously a matter of conscience. In the end, the motion was approved, but it included the specific proviso that parliamentarians should have a free vote.

    As another example, I suggest that the Conservative Party’s stark divisions on Europe are best explained by postulating that conservatism simply has nothing definitive to say on the subject.

  • Paul Griffiths 22nd Mar '08 - 8:21pm

    Although the cardinal’s intervention has made the story more newsworthy this is not, or at least not only, a religious issue. The very existence of moral philosophy as a discipline demonstrates that people can rationally disagree about ethical questions.

  • In answer to the original question I dont think they will…it would be more sensible for them to allow one which would at least avoid the impression of a rebellion, they could just say individual MP’s followed their own consciences…

    I think it is interesting how big this bill has become…i know it has kind of been brought to prominence by sermons speaking out on it but i cant help feeling in a different climate it might not have been so big…’Labour crisis’ is definatly the mood music coming from the media…

  • Paul Griffiths 22nd Mar '08 - 10:13pm

    An argument against this form of experimentation doesn’t have to rest on the claim that an embryo is sacred, or even intrinsically valuable. A utilitarian calculation about the dangers of weakening societal norms plus some form of “slippery slope” or “precautionary principle” argument might do it.

  • The Catholic church want to whip elected members of the Labour party into following unelected catholic dogma – remember this? Book burnings, heresy trials and suns rotating around flat earths?

    It does seem that the Catholic church is upgrading its interference in our political system – oddly, perhaps, the best argument yet for retaining the Act of Supremacy which I had thought until recently might finally have been obsolete.

    A last thought, how many Labour voters who ended up with a Catholic Lab MP voted to have their member follow the pope’s line, rather than the PM’S?

  • “It is essentially the medieval notion that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception, and cannot be maintained in the face of a modern scientific understanding.”

    Medieval theology held that ensoulment took place when the unborn child “quickened” (ie it could be felt by the mother) rather than at the point of conception.

    “Quite apart from offending their outdated notions of the sanctity of life, they simply can’t bear the thought that we may (or may not) be about to see some spectacular medical cures which are going to make their own “miracles” look frankly silly”

    I think that’s pretty implausible don’t you? Unlike the Christian Scientists, the Catholics have no objection at all to the majority of medical advances.

  • Paul Griffiths 23rd Mar '08 - 7:19pm

    Re: Peter Black’s question. I wonder if this is another instance where one’s political philosophy alone cannot provide all the answers. The central liberal dictum that the state should not prevent people doing what they like as long as they do not harm others (I’m simplifying hugely) doesn’t seem to help. If parents choose deaf embryo A in preference to hearing embryo B, it’s not obvious that the child that A becomes is harmed by this choice since, had the parents chosen otherwise, A would not have existed at all. My instinct is to condemn the parents’ choice, but I suspect that to do so I would have to call on resources outside of liberalism.

  • Peter’s query has stumped we mere secularists – what does the church say?!

  • Yes, genetic engineering does have consequences. It might be possible to use it do design out body hair and baldness (no problem there), but more alarmingly low intelligence as well (which might leave us with a dearth of unskilled manual workers – unless we can devise a totally mechanised refuse collection system from curtilage to tip).

    This stuff about intentionally inflicting disabilities on children reminds me of a TV debate some years ago concerning AIDS. Some ghastly radical feminist type was saying there was nothing wrong whatsoever with AIDS infected people having children, because, even if the child dies in agony, he/she will “have five years of very valuable life”. The Guardian journalist, Ed Pearce, took a huge scunner to this, and so did I.

    As for having a free vote on embryo research, while I resent the interference of unelected clerics, and have no serious objections to what the government is proposing, I think it is a long established Parliamentary convention that free votes are held on issues like abortion, capital and corporal punishment, etc.

  • matter of conscience: where personal prejudice overcomes better judgement.

    Mind you, you can’t argue with experience, just individual responses to them, so the question about which is more rational is an open one.

    Provided the constraints on the science do not allow the practice to stray outside accepted ethical guidelines I’m happy with embryo research, just as abortion is only desirable in cases of necessity – legality is the regulator and guarantor, not the permit-granter.

    Outside of these areas debate will inevitably become conflicted, and as it is impossible to whip political principles (only conclusions) a free vote is the sensible option.

  • MartinSGill 25th Mar '08 - 3:50pm

    I think we need to get one thing straight. The people that the Bishops and Cardinals are campaigning for are not, for the most part, British citizens.

    “Most Catholics”, and I’ll use an entire wing of my family as a sample, don’t agree with many of the policies coming out of the Vatican; e.g. abortion, contraception, stem-cell research etc. Even my gran who has posters of Ratzinger on the walls of her retirement home the way a teenager has pop-stars never agreed with many of those policies.

    The people church officials are campaigning for are the 1 billion Catholics that aren’t in the UK, nor most of western Europe for that matter.

    If the Chinese Communist party or Iran’s Mullahs were dictating terms to our MPs there would be total outrage, but because it’s the Catholic Church no one seems to object.

    As to Peter’s question, parents that want to deliberately inflict a disability (and hence a disadvantage) on their child are simply sick. If you think allowing parents to chose a deaf child is okay, then what about a child without eyesight, or without legs or arms, a speech impediment, learning difficulties or with a degenerative disease? Which “disability” is it okay to allow? It’s like the evil-twin of designer babies. Instead of selecting for an advantage, the parents are trying to handicap (literally) their child’s chances in life.

    How will the child feel? If I’d discovered my parents had done something like that to me for essentially their own selfish needs, I’d be so furious I’m not sure what I’d do; I’d certainly disown them.

  • Update on this…yes they will, kind of is the answer…http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7312715.stm

  • Such a sudden concession from Brown suggests Cameron was jumping the gun in making the call for a free vote when the specifics were still being worked out. It also proves that either Brown is trying to demonstrate a concilliatory side by encouraging the appearance of splits which he can use to show him in a ‘unifying’ light, or that he was off-the-ball by allowing hints of them to emerge in the first place.

  • MartinSGill – I doubt you could be angry at your parents for to ‘handicap’ you as a child, as that wouldn’t be in their power to choose. The debate about ‘designer babies’ is debased by much confusion between the theory and reality of the amount of ‘design’ that can be imposed/inflicted pre- or post-conception.

    I understand your point about the global demographic spread of Catholic adherents, but the way you argue it you seem to exclude any contribution to the debate which UK-based believers might be able to make.
    Anyway the sheer spead of catholic thought requires acceptance that it has unified a greater hold on the opinion of humanity, and so must also be accounted for (even if repudiated) to gain the widest possible democratic balance.

  • Martin, it sounds like the Catholic church hits a particular nerve of yours.

    I’m not going to defend individual priests or the ediface of the whole establishment, but from what I know of them all individuals are capable of making mistakes, so to characterise the promotion of wrongly-held beliefs as ‘spreading lies’ is unhelpful.

    After such resounding criticism of catholicism I find it hard to read your descriptions as unbiased, best-informed or sympathetic, therefore I cannot find it within myself to accept your presentation of their arguments, especially as they are based on negation, supposition and guilt by analogous association.

    I certainly disagree with aspects of the catholic approach toward human behaviour which ignores the ability of technology to impact upon our habits and choices, but they do still represent a respectable intellectual tradition and constituency that cannot simply be dismissed without consideration.

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