Update on Life Issues - October 2005

Reform of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act
This Act was introduced in 1990 but, because of sweeping changes in fertility treatments and embryo research over the past 15 years, it is pretty obvious that it now needs reviewing.

To that end, on 16 August, the Government launched a public consultation to include issues as diverse as sex selection of embryos, the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), internet-based sperm donation services, surrogacy and the welfare of children born through IVF.

Copies of the document entitled, Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: A Public Consultation can be downloaded at www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/11/78/72/04117872.pdf and the electronic response template at www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/11/78/73/04117873.doc

This is a major opportunity to have your say – the Government wants to hear from you. As Caroline Flint, the minister for public health, has said, ‘We very much hope that you will take the time to respond to this consultation and help us tackle these vital issues.’ I hope so too! I know it’s complex (you do not have to tackle all of the 74 questions and proposals); I know it’s time consuming; I know the required e-mail response template virtually excludes any serious rehearsal of a Christian ethical framework. But the alternative is to do nothing, and then moan for the next 20 years about society’s direction.
These issues are hugely significant – at stake is the value of human life, what it means to be human, the role of the family, and so on. Christians (should) understand these topics like no others. So, let individuals write, and let churches set up little committees to draft replies. The consultation period ends on Friday 25 November 2005. Thinking about and responding to these issues will do you good!

Goodbye to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
As expected, part of the above review includes the Government’s proposal to scrap the HFEA. There will be no tears shed for its demise – this gang of largely unethical poachers-turned-gamekeepers has consistently managed to upset and astound almost everyone. The work of the HFEA will pass to RATE, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos.

Not that the new RATE will necessarily be any better than the old HFEA. Nevertheless, the sheer incompetence and ethical gall of the latter has been hard to swallow. Just one recent example: during the very week that the Government announced its review of the 1990 Act, which is to include a debate on embryo screening, the HFEA, without any consultation, granted a licence to allow the screening of human embryos for a gene that causes retinoblastoma, a cancer that can be cured in 95% of cases. These unelected members of the HFEA certainly know how to act unaccountably. They display no interest in either public or Parliamentary opinion. So, it will hopefully be goodbye, HFEA, and good riddance.

Abortion – Changes to the Law?
Calls to review current abortion law are being made up and down the land. Various opinion polls and talking heads want the current upper limit of 24 weeks to be reduced to perhaps 20 weeks, or even less – Charles Kennedy, 20; Michael Howard, 20; David Steel, 12; Tony Blair, no comment.

Such calls have come partly in response to the recent 4-D images, produced by Professor Stuart Campbell, showing remarkable movement of the unborn child, though why that has come as a new revelation to some people remains a mystery – what did they think the unborn child was capable of? Nothing? Others calls have come because of the recognition that more and more premature babies are surviving after being born at 24, 23, or 22 weeks. Of course, any measure that decreases the number of abortions is to be welcomed. But let us not be naďve.

The abortion lobby is also calling for such a reduction in the time limit, which in reality will probably not save many lives because any such measure will be shot through with exceptions. So what are the abortionists playing at? They want Parliament to insist that every woman has a right to an early abortion – no questions asked and no need for the authorisation of two doctors. They want open access to early abortion, especially chemical abortion by RU-486, to be administered by nurses in doctor’s surgeries, drop-in centres and schools. But all this hoo-ha lacks any moral basis. Advances in paediatric technology, allied with doctors’ skills, have undoubtedly reduced the time of viability of newborn children, but it has not reduced their moral status. A human is still made in the image of God whether she is 24 or 12 weeks old. If it is going to be unlawful to kill an unborn child at 24 weeks, why is 12 weeks so acceptable?

And before anyone thinks that the pro-abortion industry is beginning to favour a decrease in the number of abortions, consider this. Marie Stopes International, which runs the largest chain of abortion clinics in Britain, has called for doctors who refuse to play any part in the abortion process to be reported to the General Medical Council. After all, they are jeopardising its business.

Euthanasia – Lord Joffe Refuses to Lie Down
Euthanasia, never far from the news, is back again in Parliament. In April this year, the report of a House of Lords Select Committee, which considered Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, ducked the issue and referred it back to Parliament for debate – this starts on Monday 10 October. Euthanasia enthusiasts have since been buoyed up by the decision, taken over the summer, by the British Medical Association to drop its long-standing opposition to such euthanasia. This is bad news.

And, as he promised, when his last ADTI Bill ran out of time because of the general election, Lord Joffe is preparing to bring yet another revised version back to the House of Lords. And there are suggestions that the Government is preparing to give his Bill time to complete its course through Parliament. Some have seen this as euthanasia by the back-door - Lord Joffe has no such illusions – he sees it as euthanasia by the front-door. All this is immensely dangerous – the bright red light against euthanasia seems to be flickering amber.

Embryo Research and Defeating Disease
Opposition to experimentation with human embryos has always been clear-cut – the embryos are inevitably destroyed and that is indefensible. Now new twists to this sort of unacceptable science have emerged.

We have been accustomed to thinking that an embryo had one mother and one father. Now scientists at the University of Newcastle have been given permission to create embryos with three genetic parents, two mothers and one father. And we have been accustomed to thinking that an embryo was created by one sperm penetrating one ovum. Now scientists at Edinburgh have produced human embryos without any such fertilisation. Six ova have been coaxed into embryos, and grown for five days, by a process known as parthenogenesis. The idea is that these parthenotes and three-parent embryos will be used to bring forward treatments for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all this before. Mention a ‘just-around-the-corner’ cure for a serious disorder and a funding body is much more likely to cough up the money for any dubiously ethical research. Now Lord Robert Winston has joined us in our scepticism! He states that the promises of embryonic stem cell research have been oversold by scientists. He says that much work in this area has been deliberately hyped so that politicians and the public will support such controversial science. And he believes that there will be a backlash against embryonic stem cell work when it fails to deliver new treatments within the next few years. His remarks come amid growing concerns about the stability and safety of embryonic stem cells. It is clear that such major hurdles must be overcome before treatments can benefit patients. The drive to implement such technology prematurely may yet be its downfall. In the meantime, the non-controversial adult stem cell therapies continue to progress quietly. When will they listen?

Two Remarkable Lives – Hamilton Naki and Cicely Saunders
Virtually no readers will have heard of Hamilton Naki, whose full-page obituary appeared in the British Medical Journal earlier this year (25 June, p. 1511). Mr Naki was born in the Transkei and left school at 14. He was employed as a gardener at the Groote Schuur Hospital where, through a series of curious events, he became a worldwide-recognised teacher of organ transplant techniques, while working with the famous Christiaan Barnard.

Yet there was something even more remarkable about this unsung hero. He lived in a black township, in a tiny room with no electricity or running water. Every morning he set out for work wearing a Homburg hat, suit, shirt and tie, and with polished shoes. The BMJ obituary continues, ‘He would arrive at the lab every morning at 6 am, carrying umbrella, newspaper and Bible. He spent his lunch-break reading the Bible to the down-and-outs in the cemetery behind the medical school, and warning them of the evils of alcohol and cannabis.’ What a man!

Cecily Saunders’ background was quite different. She was born into a well-to-do family and was educated at Roedean and Oxford. Yet her life also took a significant turn. As the BMJ’s obituary (23 July, p. 238) recorded, ‘Saunders was originally an agnostic, but while on holiday in Cornwall with some Christian friends, she discovered she believed in God. It was, she said, “As if the switch had flipped.”’

This set the pattern for her extraordinary life, which included the opening of St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, in 1967, as the first of the modern hospice movement, as well as her being called ‘the women who changed the face of death’. The rapidly-growing specialty of palliative care is her medical legacy. It was fitting that she spent her last days at St Christopher’s. It was my privilege to spend an afternoon with her at ‘her’ hospice during the summer of 2001– you can read something of Dame Cecily and her lifetime’s work in my book, The Edge of Life - Death, Dying and Euthanasia (Day One, 2002). What a woman!