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From The Socialist newspaper, 16 April 2008

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

Why all the controversy?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill going through parliament at the moment is causing controversy. Gordon Brown has decided to allow a free vote on aspects of the bill due to pressure from several Christian organisations, in particular the Catholic church. A number of prominent MPs including cabinet members have expressed opposition to the bill. Meanwhile 61% in a recent poll, support regulated embryo research. Dr Jackie Grunsell explains what it's all about.

What are the main points of controversy in the bill?

The bill will give scientists the ability to create 'human admixed embryos' of four different types potentially (explained later), which they anticipate can be used to research a whole variety of medical conditions.

The bill will allow these cells to be cultured for no more than 14 days after which research on embryos is banned. The implication is the embryos will have to be destroyed after this point, as it is illegal to implant them into either humans or animals.

It will allow screening of embryos for tissue matches to a sibling suffering from a serious medical illness which could be cured by a transplant of cells from the umbilical cord (foetal stem cells) of the new born baby/'saviour sibling'. Selection of embryos by gender for social reasons will be banned.

Previously, fertility clinics have had to consider the 'need for father' when deciding on whether to give someone fertility treatment. This will be scrapped allowing lesbian couples and single mothers to access fertility treatments in theory, although local restrictions on these services being provided by the NHS may still make this difficult.

Gay men may be able to use surrogate mothers to have a child for them. These changes are in line with laws allowing civil partnerships and same sex couples to adopt.

The bill has provisions to allow amendments to the Abortion Act 1967. MPs, such as the Tory Nadine Dorries, are expected to push for a reduction of the 24-week limit to 20 weeks.

What are human admixed embryos?

There are four types mentioned in the bill:

True hybrids - created by fertilising a human egg with animal sperm or vice versa. No British scientists are planning to use this form of hybrid at the moment as its research potential is not thought to be as great as other types.

Cytoplasmic hybrid embryos or 'Cybrids'. The nucleus is the part of the cell where most of the genetic material is concentrated. The nucleus is removed from an animal egg cell leaving only the outer casing of the cell. It is replaced by the nucleus of a human cell, e.g. skin cell. When this is done the cell starts to behave like an embryo and divides to form numerous embryonic stem cells.

This embryo is genetically 99.9% human and 0.1% animal. It is the type requested by scientists as the most useful research tool. The reason for using animal eggs is the shortage of human donor eggs for research as most are used in fertility treatment.

Transgenic human embryos - human embryo into which animal DNA is injected.

Chimeric human embryo - human embryo into which one or more animal cells have been integrated.

So what's so great about stem cells?

Stem cells are cells whose function has yet to be determined - they can renew themselves and turn into various different types of cells. Adult stem cells are already used in bone marrow transplants and research into heart muscle repair after heart attacks, is underway.

Foetal stem cells can differentiate into different types of cell but of limited number. Embryonic stem cells can turn into any type of cell and have the potential to repair tissue damage, treat degenerative diseases and can be created in large numbers that could be used to treat many people.

Research is being done or planned to look at their use in treating diabetes, cancers, Parkinson's disease, motor neurone disease, cystic fibrosis, spinal cord injuries, HIV/AIDS, developmental problems in young children, osteoporosis, blindness and better fertility treatments to name just some.

What are the arguments against?

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales has responded by saying they "are opposed to all production of embryos by a non-sexual act of manufacture". In effect this means they would deny IVF treatment to all those couples who have benefited from it over the years or may do in the future.

They state "the destruction of human life is our most serious concern" and advocate the human rights of the embryo. They feel the creation of a hybrid embryo is a "radical violation of human dignity".

Embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be considered embryonic human beings and a woman should be able to have them transplanted into her body if she wishes!

The bishops also insist that the "...importance of the genetic paternal relationship for a healthy sense of identity" is supported by millennia of human experience. Evidence points to the need for supportive parenting and for children to have exposure to positive role models of both genders but there is no evidence that they have to be genetically related to provide this.

It might be possible to take the bishops' arguments seriously if they actually campaigned for human rights around the world and against child poverty and for better childcare etc. Or if they argued for improved social care and health care for those facing long-term ill health with the conditions that may be helped by embryo research.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Roman Catholic leader in England and Wales said MPs would want to vote on the bill according to their convictions and advocated a free vote.

Gordon Brown has allowed that Labour MPs not be subject to the party whip (i.e. they would be isolated from the party machinery within parliament and effectively sit as independent MPs until the whip is restored) on the amendments to the bill. That won't be the case on the bill itself.

The fact that Catholic MPs like Ruth Kelly, transport secretary, Des Browne, defence secretary, and Paul Murphy, Welsh secretary, have decided they have to vote with their conscience makes a mockery of the whole process.

Do they not have a conscience over other issues? In fact all of them supported the war in Iraq, which has inevitably led to the destruction of human life on a massive scale.

Is it a step forward?

There is no doubt that stem cell research is not yet a proven panacea for many diseases but it does offer enormous potential and hope for those suffering, often debilitating or life-threatening illness. It is vital the public are made aware of the issues surrounding this research so they can be involved in deciding how it is used in the future.

It would be criminal if having made a major breakthrough, the NHS refused to fund treatments due to lack of resources or the technology was patented by profit seeking drug companies so that it never reaches those most in need, as has happened with HIV/AIDS treatments and other therapies so far.

Of course under capitalism such developments will be used for profit. If only MPs with 'conscience' would stand against this system that puts money and prejudice before the real needs of human society. Bringing drug and research companies into public ownership would be a start.

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