Another private member's bill is attempting to force the government to act on embryo research. Matthew Keegan reports on five years of official inactivity
LAST week the Duke of Norfolk's Private Member's Bill to ban all experiments on human embroys was given an unopposed second reading in the House of Lords. This Unborn Children (Protection) Bill hopes to succeed where Enoch Powell's 1985 Bill failed.
Four years ago Mr Powell's measure was denied a third reading in the House of Commons by "filibusting" techniques similar to those seen recently employed in halting attempts to amend the Abortion Act.
It will be five years this July since the government-appointed Warnock committee delivered its report on human fertilisation and embryology. Five years of official inactivity on that document's recommendations prompted the Duke of Norfolk's attempt to break the silence last week. Since Warnock, the Conservative Government has been promising to pass legislation that will implement its conclusions. But it keeps saying that it cannot find the necessary Parliamentary time.
In the meantime research programmes continue under guidelines which carry no force of law set down by the Voluntary Licensing Authority (VLA). This body, however, claims to take the Warnock recommendations as its yardstick.
As it stands, no research centre is obliged to be monitored by the VLA but the hope is that those undertaking research into human fertilisation will work with the authority. To date the VLA has approved 43 research projects in 40 accredited centres, two of these projects have been completed.
This temporary watchdog has done little to stem the unease over the lack of legislation that will strictly set out what can and cannot be done.
The contrast between Britain and Australia is instructive. In Victoria, the legal time limit for tests on embryos is just 20 hours. Recently, however,
scientists have been given provisional permission to carry out experiments on a two day old egg, claiming that they would be using embryos produced as a by product of in vitro fertilisation treatment for childless couples, and not ones created specifically for experimentation.
Such a scenario confirms the anxieties of some British pro-life groups that even with strict legislation there would be ways of getting round the barriers put up to stop scientists from going too far in their experiments in the bid for greater knowledge.
The government's long delay in presenting legislation is worrying and puzzling both for those in favour of research and those against. Paul Tully from SPUC (The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) believes the reason lies in the government's hope for a major breakthrough in embryo research. If this were to happen he feels they would use it to justify the continued use of human embryos for research on the grounds of potential, but as yet unproved, medical benefits.
Such medical advantages, often claimed by those using embryos for research, are largely unproven according to Nuala Scarisbrick of Life. Even in vitro fertilisation, where an egg is fertilised in the laboratory and then replaced in the woman's
womb, is a treatment with a poor statistical success rate.
But it is the government's belief that medical good can come out of allowing experiments. And it fears that on the evidence of the Commons' majority for Enoch Powell's 1985 measure any vote on the issue will ban all such research. That is the real cause of the delay in introducing legislation, says Mrs Scarisbrick.
However, a combination of a continuing public campaign by churchmen and organisations opposed to all embryo research, and the parliamentary pressure exerted by bills such as the Duke of Norfolk's last week in the House of Lords, has finally forced the government to act.
Days after the Duke, Britain's leading Catholic layman, had obtained a second reading for his measure, the government hinted that it planned to act possibly in the next session of Parliament. It is already pledged to allowing either/ or clauses on the question of accepting Warnock's 1 4 -day recommendation or banning research outright, and it is assumed that a flee vote of MPs will be allowed on such a "conscience issue".
The government also put a sting in the tail of their heavy hints of legislative action on this issue — by mentioning a possible additional clause to the bill to lower the abortion time limit to 24 weeks, which would in one measure deal with the two most contentious conscience issues that had dogged it the past few years.
Even though this would be a considerable coup for the antiabortion lobby, some think it wrong for the two issues to be lumped together. Keith Davies of Life feels it would be "ambivalent" for the government to recognise the need for ammending the Abortion Act, but then tack the question onto a bill on embryo research.
The clear direction of such a policy, Mr Davies fcars, would be to attempt to break down the majority which the supporters of a total ban on research believe they have in the Commons by offering them the chance of some success in the long campaign on abortion. The government would hope to push through a measure based on Warnock's proposals by buying off its opponents with a change in the abortion law.
No official announcement has yet been made of government plans for bills in the next session. Some fear that the complexity of both the moral and the parliamentary situation may cause them to dodge the issue once again.