It is late September in the United Kingdom, with the Labour Party conference around the corner, the Liberal Democrats just finishing theirs, and the Conservatives heading to Birmingham to confer on the 28th. Parliament convenes at the beginning of October and as yet there is no date set for the report stage and third reading of the (in)famous Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
This is clearly not a happy time for the Labour Party, in particular for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who must surely consider the likelihood of a leadership battle more than just a possibility. Rebels are dribbling in behind Siobhain McDonagh MP, who was sacked by the Chief Whip last week and was the first to demand leadership nomination papers to be circulated at the party conference. This rebellion would need 70 supporters to become a reality. Could it happen?
|The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill might have been very fashionable with secular scientific lobbies, but it was not popular at Scottish grass root level. Nor were proposed reforms to family law.|
It seems that anything could happen at the moment. With the economic crisis permanently on the front page, giant investment banks collapsing, holiday firms and airlines going bankrupt, the housing market plummeting, and a very cold winter ahead with escalating fuel prices, there is little to be cheerful about in Great Britain. One cannot help feeling that Gordon Brown is as much victim of circumstances as the real cause of the problem, but the Labour Party is in panic mode and a scapegoat must be found. More and more are pointing fingers at Brown and want him out. Whether or not anybody else would be prepared to step into 10 Downing Street — or wise to — is another matter; as a career move it could be as salutary as a goblet of hemlock.
While Labour plots thicken, the Conservatives seem to be sitting quietly, smugly relishing a succession of polls which give them comforting margins of majority support.
Whatever happens to the Prime Minister or his party, my interest as somebody who has never been a card-carrying politico lies in the future of the HFE bill. This highly controversial piece of government legislation was moving speedily through the two Houses of Parliament right up until the summer recess, when it suddenly disappeared only days before it was due for reporting prior to the third reading. With only the Glasgow East by-election on the immediate political horizon this postponement was a welcome surprise. With the satirical journal Private Eye I am inclined to wonder: Were these two issues by any chance related?
The HFE bill might have been very fashionable with secular scientific lobbies, but its liberalisation of assisted reproduction, extension of embryo research, endorsement of genetic manipulation, creation of animal-human hybrids and more, was not popular at Scottish grass root level. Nor were proposed reforms to family law, including same-sex parenting and other such novelties.
The legislation also holds the potential to address abortion issues, and amendments have been laid down — but not yet voted on — which attempt to either liberalise or restrict abortion practices. The Catholic Church in Scotland was particularly vocal in its opposition to this legislation, and its senior prelate, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, made his views very well known to his countryman, the Prime Minister. Does it need a huge leap of faith to suspect that the extraordinary postponement of the HFE bill might have been an attempt to ensure a successful Glasgow by-election?
Whatever the government's reason for delaying the bill, Labour still suffered a huge defeat in what was said to be one of the safest seats in the country; the constituency being won by the Scottish National Party (SNP) with a colossal 22.5 per cent swing against Labour.
Scottish composer James MacMillan, in a prophetic article published in July, well before the Glasgow vote, had no doubts as to the mood of his compatriots towards New Labour. “Nowadays, Christian beliefs are being dumped contemptuously by the Labour Party,” he wrote in The Telegraph. “In the long run, in places such as the west of Scotland, the party will be fatally weakened by it.” He was, of course, right.
Were such a trend to continue this could mean an amazing 37 SNP seats at the next General Election. But even before that possibility, there is a further by-election coming up in Scotland in Glenrothes, a constituency which borders on Gordon Brown’s. Glenrothes is another once-safe Labour seat which is looking very vulnerable, and another victory for the SNP is predicted when the election takes place late October. The politics there are more likely to be focused on nationalist rather than pro-life issues, but the importance of the human life legislation should not be underestimated. Cardinal O’Brien is sure to make his voice heard again, and disillusioned Labour supporters are there for the taking. The Scotsman newspaper included the HFE bill in its 10-point list of factors which contributed to the devastating loss of the Glasgow East by-election, so who knows how it might influence Glenrothes.
So, when will the manipulation of life bill be reported back? And what will be the fate of the amendments which have been added in the meantime?
Possibly the most curious new amendment is that proposed by the Conservative MP John Bercow, who wants to make it a criminal offence for those advertising crisis pregnancy services not to recommend having an abortion. Why he is so determined to cosy up to the abortion lobby in Westminster is a mystery to most of us, especially as this particular amendment is both petty and silly. The Advertising Standards Act is already in existence for anybody who wants to challenge misleading representation of fact. One wonders what the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas),who offer absolutely no advice on pregnancy, as far as I know, but are certainly the biggest supplier of abortions in the UK, would do if they were subjected to scrutiny under the proposed Bercow amendment.
With 83 per cent of Conservative candidates acknowledging in a recent opinion poll that they would favour lowering the upper limit for abortion, and with their party doing so well in general in opinion polls, the maverick stance taken by Bercow is absolutely mystifying.
Bercow is politically correct on all manner of feel-good projects involving the young: he is against bullying, wants to ban smacking and is enthusiastic about the generic welfare of children, especially those with any disability. He wants to see increased funding for research into autism. He speaks for the rights of runaway children and young offenders. He is even, bless him, in favour of greater support for cricket in state schools.
Speaking to the Children and Young Person’s Bill, June 2008, he expressed the depth of his concern for children with special needs: “I want to underline the fact that children or young people with speech, language or communication difficulties of a significant intensity should be regarded as suffering from a disability every bit as anxiety provoking, debilitating and potentially life or potential limiting as would be a physical impairment or a mental disability.”
It is hard to understand why the very same man is so adamant that crisis pregnancy workers should be criminalised for trying to save the lives of unborn children.
Bercow has also jumped on the pro-abortion bandwagon of MPs who want to extend abortion to Northern Ireland. This is a highly unpopular proposal in Northern Ireland itself and not likely to win Gordon Brown any favours among the nine loyal allies from the Democrat Unionist Party who supported him so wholeheartedly on the 42-day detention of terrorist suspects. Other new abortion amendments are aimed at total liberalisation of existing legislation.
Much more in tune with the mood of the country are the abortion amendments concerning informed consent, the need of psychiatric assessment, counselling, more information on disability, definitions of life-threatening handicaps and lowering the upper time limit. On the embryo front, Tory MP William Cash is asking for a ban on all embryo research licences and the implementation of a better system for assessing the necessity of such research. Two other Conservatives, David Burrowes and David Amess, pursue this line as well, proposing a system which would result in much greater public intervention and accountability. Proposals to ban genetic manipulation and germline intervention are the thrust of other restrictive proposals.
Will any or all of these amendments be aired at report stage? Will any be voted on? My dream scenario is further postponement of the HFE bill, Labour defeat at Glenrothes, a leadership contest fiasco, and the fall of Mr Brown’s government and its obnoxious legislative attempt on the life and dignity of the unborn. Who knows? These are very unusual times and, as I said before, anything could happen.
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.