IntroductionEgenis Communications Officer Claire Packman considers the topic from a lay perspective.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has been passing through the Committee stage in the House of Commons, instigating debate not only in the House but also in the media.
A week is a long time in politics, but ten years is an aeon in embryology and stem cell science. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which has been so hotly debated in Parliament is a welcome review and clarification of the legislation surrounding embryology and stem cell research.
This is such a rapidly advancing field new breakthroughs “tread upon another’s heel, so fast they follow.” The HFEA has worked hard and consulted busily, but consultations take time. Science in this field moves so quickly that a procedure could be superseded, if not outmoded, by the time the HFEA makes its ruling.
Certainly it was time for a national debate on what is, or should be, permissible in a field which can be seen as fraught with moral complications. Each development brings new ethical dilemmas. But how should this debate be framed? It has been delineated in the newspapers as a clash between the guardians of science, those looking to push back the frontiers of knowledge with little regard for complex questions about what it means to be human, and the guardians of our souls, who are certain that those souls are there from the moment of conception and are on no account to be meddled with, and particularly not by having the DNA of their earthly existence extracted, inserted or otherwise prodded. No, not quite a two-way contest, because tagging into the ring are those who warn against ‘Frankenstein science’, human interference with nature’s building blocks, interference which could bring down the whole edifice.
Is this the whole story? Of course not. These entrenched positions cannot begin to summarise a complex debate which should, and at its best has, encompassed questioning about the ethical limits of scientific endeavour, the objectives of that endeavour, the likelihood of success, the sordid subject of money – who pays and who benefits? – and yes, the question of what it means to be human. We have had glimpses of all of these in the media coverage of the embryology debate, and indeed in the Parliamentary debate on the Bill. But the Parliamentary debate has itself raised yet another issue – who decides? Or rather, since the legislative decision rests with Parliament, who should decide?
Some scientists have lobbied MPs enthusiastically, trying to explain why the research is necessary. Yet if the debate has revealed anything it is that MPs are ill-equipped to decide on scientific issues. Columnists had great fun with Edward Leigh (Conservative, Gainsborough) denying his genetic similarity to mice or daffodils (and, it appeared, denying any mathematical competence either). Less fun, surely, was Leigh’s plaint that Ian Gibson (Labour, Norwich) was trying to “blind us with science”. In a crucial debate about the future of one branch of scientific investigation in the UK the last thing the Commons wanted, apparently, was an intervention from a biologist who understands the meaning of the words ‘base sequence’.
But Parliament is made up of ordinary mortals elected by ordinary mortals. It is right that not only scientists decide about science, just as the Energy Bill will be decided not by electricians or environmentalists but by those same ordinary mortals. But it is right, too, that where MPs have gaps in their knowledge – and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology admits that most parliamentarians do not have a scientific or technological background – they take account of expert knowledge. The Government has, however, been known to ignore the advice of its own experts, for example on the reclassification of cannabis and on badger culling. This is an unwelcome development. Expertise is hard-won, and while debate is essential, some participants are clearly better informed than others. Scientists know what they are talking about, in their own field, at least. We might all listen a little more carefully.