March came in like a mad hatter in England. This included a White Easter which dusted the countryside with picturesque snow. Less attractive was the eruption of a heated debate among politicians, scientists, and the clergy. With his usual lack of timing, Prime Minister Gordon Brown chose the earliest pre-Easter season in decades to re-introduce a bill through which the government would bless the creation of hybrid embryos.
Hybrid embryos aren’t designed to give better mileage out of a bowl of porridge. Scientists involved in stem cell research would be allowed to create interspecies entities made from injecting human DNA into hollowed out animal egg cells. The end product would be 99.9 percent human and 0.1 percent animal. The technology is the same one that produced Dolly, the world’s famous first cloned sheep.
News of the proposed Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill was met with unusually boisterous opposition from leading Catholic prelates and caused some of the Labour Party’s own Catholic members to threaten an insurgency. Reporters had a field day writing headlines invoking Frankenstein. From his pulpit on Easter Sunday, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Brown’s native Scotland, called for the bill to be rejected as it represented “a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity, and human life.” This sentiment was echoed in many other sermons, preached to the full houses which tend to gather on the most holy day in the Christian calendar.
As one might expect, the scientific community of Britain responded with explanations on how religious people had gotten it all wrong, again. Stem cell biologists and experts in human genetics gave media interviews full of relativistic arguments (everyone else is already doing this) and sang the club theme song about the untold numbers of people who would be miraculously healed using stem cells (almost like raising folks from the dead wholesale). The Bill also provides for the creation of “saviour siblings.” This term refers to creating a batch of family embryos in order to find a match for an existing child with a specific disease. The “saviour” is carried to term, at which point its placenta, bone marrow, or what have you is harvested and he or she gets to live. Meanwhile, the other embryos could be legally destroyed, tossed in the bin presumably marked: Disposable Replacement Spare Parts.
Another highly controversial section of the Bill would permit the biological father of a child conceived — via in-vitro fertilization — to be removed from a birth certificate and replaced with the name of another unrelated parent. The joint select committee of MP’s assigned to review this legislation moaned that this amounted to, “the state colluding in a deception.” Yes, the same Brave New World Labour Party that has run the National Health Service into the ground now offers to wipe the biological slate clean, for they argue that a sperm donor ought not to be responsible for any child he fathers. This puts children one small step away from having the government claim paternity from the get-go.
The Cardinal’s position was that scientists failed to comprehend the theological stance against playing God. He also renewed his call for Gordon Brown to allow Catholic members of Labour who opposed the Bill to vote their consciences without the threat of being sacked (fired) for their faith.
Enter the infamous “floated compromise” maneuver.
Faced with the Easter onslaught, the media received word — from the Brown shop — that Members of Parliament who were deeply concerned about the Bill might be granted permission to hold their seats by voting against just the parts they didn’t like. Everyone else would then vote for the whole Bill and it would pass. When one of the rebellious MP’s labeled this “beyond cynical,” the most senior member of the Catholic clergy entered the crossfire.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, leader of the Roman Church in England and Wales, went public to insist that Labour MP’s should be granted what is known as a “free vote,” the process by which party members are allowed to vote their minds as opposed to being required to succumb to party pressure to vote as an ideological block. O’Connor also encouraged Catholic Cabinet Ministers in Brown’s government, as well as any from other faiths, to stand up and be counted in this matter. By March 23, up to a dozen Labour rebels were talking about turning in their resignations. A document known as “the doomsday list” began to circulate.
Brown sustained a further blow when — at mid-week — Steven Byers, the respected former Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary, and a non Catholic, spoke out loudly in a bid to reach Brown’s tin political ear. This was considered a direct challenge to the Prime Minster’s authority.
And lest you wonder where the Conservative leadership was in this affair, David Cameron pointed out that his MP’s have been granted permission for a “free vote” and challenged Brown to do likewise. Should he fail to do so, Cameron predicted that Brown would be forced to “climb down” from his inflexible position and endure another public humiliation. But the Tory Party leader stopped far short of calling for a cease and desist on all stem cell and embryonic research. It is a curious footnote to this situation (which is unlikely to be resolved until May) that Gordon Brown and David Cameron each have a son with genetic diseases, either or both of whom might benefit from successful stem cell therapies.
*Post-script: As we went to press on Tuesday night, British newspapers carried the news that a team — based at Newcastle upon Tyne University — had created an embryo formed from injecting human skin cells into the hollowed-out egg cells of a cow. Despite protests that this was not a Frankenstein moment, The Daily Mail article reported that the egg was successfully "jolted" into life. The embryo survived for three days. The article goes on to say: "The scientists were only given permission to carry out the controversial experiment in January and the speed of their success has astonished scientists."
This leads one to wonder why there is going to be a vote — one month from now — on making hybrid experiments legal in the UK. Who gave this team permission to go ahead in January?
*Another postscript to this story: Gordon Brown did, indeed, "climb down" and gave his party members the right to a "free vote" on the Embryology Bill.