by Jonathan Petre
ONE OF the most important pro-life bills to be before Parliament for years, which seeks to ban research on human embryos, is expected to be passed with a significant majority when it receives its second reading this afternoon.
After a week of intense lobbying by pro-life pressure groups, more than 200 MPs from all political parties, including at least 20 Catholics, have pledged to vote for Enoch Powell's Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. The Bill has also received backing from the Catholic bishops, although Mgr Michael Connelly of the Committee for Bio-Ethical Issues expressed concern over the details of the Bill.
The campaign to prohibit experimentation on embryos, which began in response tO the Warnock Report published last July, culminated this week in one of the biggest petitions ever to put before Parliament. Nearly two million people signed the petition organised by Life and other anti-abortion groups. It is to be presented to the House of Commons today by the Catholic MP Norman St John Stevas shortly before MPs debate the Powell Bill.
In receiving the petition on Monday Mr St John Stevas said it was morally wrong to stimulated the creation of a living human embryo and then dissect it in the laboratory or discard it into the dustbin.
"I call on the Government and the Social Services Secretary to take urgent action to reassure public opinion that the Government is concerned about this matter."
Professor Jack Scarisbrick, the chairman of Life, said he believed the petition to be the biggest since the Chartists in the 1840s.
Both Life and the other leading pro-life group, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which is particularly influential in Parliament, have thrown their weight behind the Bill despite reservations about its apparent failure to deal with the issues of spare embryos and freezing embryos.
Mrs Phyllis Bowman of Spuc said that there was both popular and political support for the Bill, and any deficiencies in it could be ironed out at the Committee stage. She called on MPs to provide a substantial majority for the Bill in order to help its progress through Committee.
If the Bill becomes law, doctors who wish to use in vitro (test tube) techniques will have to name their patients and ask permission of the Secretary of State to treat them. Under the Bill anyone who fertilises an egg without permission could face a jail sentence of up to two years.
The Bill specifies that the Secretary of State's authority "shall be given expressly for the purpose of enabling a named woman to bear a child by means of embryo insertion, and not for any other purposes" such as, for example using a spare embryo not required for implantation for research.
A doctor who has the required permission has up to four months in which to carry out the operation, which would include fertilising a number of eggs in the test-tube and implanting as many as necessary to initiate a pregnancy.
Mgr Connelly said that it was not possible to guage in advance how, if the Bill became law, the Minister involved would use his powers and the doctors would use theirs.
"In practice, the process for removing eggs from the woman
to be treated is neither easy nor
pleasant," he said. "The doctors will probably have to
extract about eight eggs and then, once they are fertilised, replace them one or two at a time until successful.
"But suppose it is successful first time. What will the doctors then do with the spare embryos? They can be used either for experimentation or for implantation in another woman, which is a form of surrogacy."
The Catholic Church believes human life began at conception,
he said. "Other people cast
doubt on this, but all they are really saying is they are not sure.
But if they are not sure they should give the embryo the benefit of the doubt and protect it. Otherwise you are killing an innocent human being."
Sir Hugh Rossi, the Catholic Conservative MP for Hornsey and Wood Green told the Catholic Herald that although we would have preferred a tougher bill, he would be supporting it as a first step in a campaign to protect the embryo.
"It is an extremely important bill because it affects the way society thinks about human life, he said.