Defending life against unaccountable power

…man, proud man, dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep ...
(Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene III)

Last month, with the final passage of the British government’s radical Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill pending, the Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Alan Moses, addressed a public meeting of the body charged with administering the law in this area. The law lord concluded his speech with the above quotation, for which he is to be very much thanked, even though it is difficult to understand what mischief he intended as, for the most part, his speech was an enthusiastic endorsement of his hosts.

For my part, I have never read a better definition of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. During 17 years of existence, its “little authority” has so gone to its head that it has usurped most of the real power in the contentious arena of assisted reproduction and embryo research. And, now that the bill has been passed and signed into law, I imagine that the said authority has never felt more reassured and smug. It surely is enough to make the angels weep.

Everything is now approved, every taboo is broken, every possible outrage against human dignity is now formally endorsed: animal-human embryos, artificial gametes, cloning using two maternal egg sources, germline manipulation, preimplantation diagnosis for eugenic purposes, posthumous conception, removal of the child’s need for a father, use of tissue without proper consent … The list goes on.

‘We lost every vote’

We fought hard against the bill. The Catholic Church, strengthened by its clear position on the right to life of the human embryo, was particularly vocal, and a great deal of activity was centred around other Christian churches as well. Many of the pro-life organisations grouped together under the banner Passion for Life, and, with a platform which included parliamentarians David Alton, Ann Widdecombe, Geraldine Smith and David Burrowes, travelled the land conducting rallies and encouraging the audiences to make their voices heard. Two million postcards of opposition were sent to MPs from around the country, and everyone was encouraged to lobby personally their individual representatives. There were protests in Parliament Square, briefings, debates, processions, prayers. And we lost every vote.

The old 1990 Act was already responsible for breaking most rules regarding the inviolability of the human embryo, but it left in place some restrictions, some inclination towards morality rather than the absolute scientific imperative, and vaguely endorsed the rights of children to traditional family life. The new law represents a total victory for science, for genetic determinism, for unconstrained reproductive freedom. Even more worryingly, it has a built-in capacity for limitless liberty, a quality proudly described as “future-proofing” by health minister, Dawn Primarolo.

Summing up in the House of Commons, having assured us cryptically that “The kaleidoscope of science is coming to a rest,” Ms Primarolo proudly asserted that no longer will the “extremes of scientific progress be blocked by red tape, stifled by regulation, or frustrated by a regime that fails to keep pace with social change”. That’s the new legislation in a nutshell.

The organization in which I serve, Comment on Reproductive Ethics, never imagined that the outcome of all our efforts to defeat the bill would have been much different, for reasons I give later. We could only hope for greater delay, postponement, and even a change of government -- any kind of distraction which might have taken the legislation completely off the agenda. But the miracles did not eventuate.

And, sadly, no miracles occurred during the debates in Parliament either. If anything the bill got worse rather than better and, despite heroic efforts from some members of both the Commons and the Lords, amendment after amendment was hopelessly lost, with division lists which were rarely close.

Less heroism, more strategy

It is time now for a realistic appraisal of what went wrong; not a gratuitous post-mortem, but an acute and accurate analysis of how we organised our campaigns, the reality of our lobbying potential, the wisdom of our strategies. We must do better next time.

Much and all as we may admire martyrs, in the secular world of today’s United Kingdom being heroic is simply not enough. It is right and proper for the churches to preach the religious truths, but the lay voice has to learn the value of self-effacement, pragmatic game play, and sheer cunning. We need to build unlikely alliances, not create islands of pro-life rhetoric; we need to work far more successfully with middle-ground players, engage in creative lateral thinking.

If we stand up with predictable pro-life profiles we are quickly marginalised. We need to liaise far more with unexpected spokespeople of the calibre of Frank Field, for example. This Labour MP, with no affiliation to any known lobby positions, tabled abortion amendments of extraordinary astuteness.

Arguments, too, must move beyond repetition of absolutes regarding human life and include the utilitarian. In embryo research, for example, we need to address safety concerns, funding allocation, the economic complexities of marketing tissue in countries with different ethical approaches.

And we need to keep the scientific message simple, not weighed down in complicated terminology. Obfuscation is the game of the other side and we must repeatedly deconstruct the nonsense they try to hide behind. “Cytoplasmic admixed embryos” means “animal-human embryos”. We need to underline that they are talking about eggs from cow’s ovaries from the local abattoir. That is how the message should be delivered.

When Scotland’s Cardinal O’Brien used the words, “Frankenstein monsters,” the media reacted immediately, the temperature rose, and it helped lose the Labour Party a by-election in Glasgow East!

Finding the right target

But as I stated earlier, whatever we did during the passage of the legislation we stood little chance of victory -- for the simple reason, I maintain, that we continue to target the wrong centre of power. At the risk of sounding like Cassandra, CORE has been saying for years that it is the HFEA and not parliament which is pulling all the strings in this arena.

CORE argued for a judicial review of the authority when it permitted the creation of tissue-matching embryos (approved in 2001). A second case, in partnership with the Christian Legal Centre, against animal-human hybrids (approved last year) is due to be heard on November 26, so we make this statement not without real experience.

Licences have already been issued by the HFEA for human research cloning, three for animal-human hybrids, and innumerable others for tissue-matching embryos. All manner of novelties associated with embryo research and politically-correct parenting have been permitted for years. The new legislation simply rubber-stamped what the authority had already approved. And from now on, with the future-proofed new law, they will never have a moment of hesitation.

Our real objective during the passage of this bill should have been, not the minutiae of the text, but the role and assumed power of the HFEA itself. Until the unacceptable autonomy of the HFEA is reigned in, our battles will always be in vain. We have lost a very important opportunity to address this important issue.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was never, ever, going to overturn what the omnipotent authority had already so generously licensed.

Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Alan Moses, in concluding his speech to the authority, praised the HFEA for being an “independent and unaccountable decision maker”. The really scary thing is that he is absolutely right. The HFEA is accountable to nobody; it is a law unto itself.

The bull’s-eye of power in this particular field of medicine and research is centred within “this little brief authority”, and it is against this undemocratic body that our full energies must be continually directed.

Josephine Quintavalle is the director of CORE, Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a non-profit organisation in the UK which focuses on the controversial issues associated with human reproduction. The group was founded in 1994 and is a key contributor to ethical debate at national and international level.


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