Will Labour allow a free vote on embryo bill?

by Stephen Tall on March 22, 2008

The Easter weekend row over Labour’s refusal to say if they will let their MPs have a free vote on legislation which allows the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos for research rumbles on. The BBC website today reports speculation that at least one Catholic cabinet minister, Paul Murphy, would quit rather than support the bill; Ruth Kelly and Des Browne are also mentioned.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have confirmed a free vote will be granted to their MPs, though the Lib Dems’ science spokesman Evan Harris has made clear his views on the issue:

From a religious point of view, it seems right that we should use God-given powers of science to create short-term entities that are microscopic that might be a way of showing us how to develop stem cells from embryos that might be used to treat people with terrible diseases.”

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These are very contreversial ethical issues. Labour really should allow a free vote on it, it’s simply unfair not to.

by Alasdair on March 22, 2008 at 2:24 pm. Reply #

“Will Labour allow a free vote on embryo bill?”

No more than the Lib Dems allowed a free vote on the Constitreaty. Hypocrisy cuts both ways in the world of control freakery.

by Dave H on March 22, 2008 at 4:03 pm. Reply #

I think it would be difficult to argue that Europe is a matter of conscience for Liberal Democrat MPs given the history of our party on this subject. On the other hand embryo research and the ethical issues around it clearly are matters of conscience rather than party policy.

by Peter Black on March 22, 2008 at 4:56 pm. Reply #

Could somebody please explain this “vote of conscience” thing? Surely any vote that has consequences (that’s most of them) is a “vote of conscience.” Labour should whip this measure if it was in their manifesto. Was it? But I really can’t see much point in opposition parties whipping at all.

by Laurence Boyce on March 22, 2008 at 5:41 pm. Reply #

This bill is going to cause havoc – there are so many catholics in the government surely they’ll have to allow a free vote?

And then there’s the issue of reducing the time for abortion…can’t imagine it being any more controversial!

by Jo on March 22, 2008 at 6:37 pm. Reply #

Very roughly, I think a “matter of conscience” is one which for one’s political philosophy provides no definitive response or guidance. It is, of course, open to dispute as to what those matters are.

For example, when Federal Conference debated physician-assisted suicide in 2004, some argued that this was not a proper subject for the party to take a position on, since it was so obviously a matter of conscience. In the end, the motion was approved, but it included the specific proviso that parliamentarians should have a free vote.

As another example, I suggest that the Conservative Party’s stark divisions on Europe are best explained by postulating that conservatism simply has nothing definitive to say on the subject.

by Paul Griffiths on March 22, 2008 at 6:42 pm. Reply #

I’ve got a better definition. How about: a “vote of conscience” is merely a whipped vote, with Bishops taking the place of the whips’ office?

by Laurence Boyce on March 22, 2008 at 7:04 pm. Reply #

But I’m sure that there will be those without a Christian faith voting against, and those with one who will take a similar point of view to Evan.

by Ryan Cullen on March 22, 2008 at 7:36 pm. Reply #

But I’m sure that there will be those without a Christian faith voting against.

That’s right. They’ll have some other variety of faith.

by Laurence Boyce on March 22, 2008 at 7:41 pm. Reply #

Still don’t know how to link in a comment – so you’ll have to click on my name – it’s a very interesting articles about the faith issues that maybe driving the government. Not saying what I think about this as I’m not sure, but interesting all the same…

by Jo on March 22, 2008 at 8:01 pm. Reply #

Although the cardinal’s intervention has made the story more newsworthy this is not, or at least not only, a religious issue. The very existence of moral philosophy as a discipline demonstrates that people can rationally disagree about ethical questions.

by Paul Griffiths on March 22, 2008 at 8:21 pm. Reply #

This is how you do bold, italics, and links.

You type the following into the edit box:

This is how you do <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href=”http://www.libdemvoice.org”>links</a>.

by Laurence Boyce on March 22, 2008 at 8:25 pm. Reply #

Although the cardinal’s intervention has made the story more newsworthy this is not, or at least not only, a religious issue.

I’m not so sure about that, Paul. I’ll concede, for instance, that there are atheists who are passionately anti-abortion. It’s rare, but it does happen. But what we are talking about here is, if you like, the extreme end of the abortion argument – namely the idea that all human life, even if it’s only a handful of cells in a petri dish, is sacred. That position, I would suggest, is pure theology. It is essentially the medieval notion that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception, and cannot be maintained in the face of a modern scientific understanding. I would be very surprised to learn of any atheist who was, on principle, against embryo experimentation up to a fixed limit. I would certainly want to give them a big slap.

Of course the Catholic Church simply hates the promise held out through embryo experimentation. Quite apart from offending their outdated notions of the sanctity of life, they simply can’t bear the thought that we may (or may not) be about to see some spectacular medical cures which are going to make their own “miracles” look frankly silly. And what are they going to do then? Forbid Catholics from taking up these life-saving possibilities? I think their “flock” will have other ideas.

by Laurence Boyce on March 22, 2008 at 9:48 pm. Reply #

In answer to the original question I dont think they will…it would be more sensible for them to allow one which would at least avoid the impression of a rebellion, they could just say individual MP’s followed their own consciences…

I think it is interesting how big this bill has become…i know it has kind of been brought to prominence by sermons speaking out on it but i cant help feeling in a different climate it might not have been so big…’Labour crisis’ is definatly the mood music coming from the media…

by Darrell on March 22, 2008 at 9:58 pm. Reply #

An argument against this form of experimentation doesn’t have to rest on the claim that an embryo is sacred, or even intrinsically valuable. A utilitarian calculation about the dangers of weakening societal norms plus some form of “slippery slope” or “precautionary principle” argument might do it.

by Paul Griffiths on March 22, 2008 at 10:13 pm. Reply #

Ah, I don’t do slippery slopes as a matter of conscience.

by Laurence Boyce on March 22, 2008 at 10:27 pm. Reply #

This is an argument over cells, just cells. Not actual individual humans/animals/hybrids. I feel a chorus coming on, join in when you know the tune.

Every cell is sacred
Every cell is good
Every cell is needed
In your neighborhood

Yes, it is a matter of conscience. Opposing medical research that harms no-one (not even any animals) is unconscionable.

Should it be a free vote? Why not. The Labour party should certainly give a free vote, if the Catholic church does.

by Joe Otten on March 23, 2008 at 1:33 am. Reply #

The Catholic church want to whip elected members of the Labour party into following unelected catholic dogma – remember this? Book burnings, heresy trials and suns rotating around flat earths?

It does seem that the Catholic church is upgrading its interference in our political system – oddly, perhaps, the best argument yet for retaining the Act of Supremacy which I had thought until recently might finally have been obsolete.

A last thought, how many Labour voters who ended up with a Catholic Lab MP voted to have their member follow the pope’s line, rather than the PM’S?

by john on March 23, 2008 at 1:54 am. Reply #

Hey Joe, that’s more like it!

by Laurence Boyce on March 23, 2008 at 8:00 am. Reply #

As a matter of interest, what do people think about the clause in this bill that will enable embryos created in fertility treatment to be screened for certain genetic diseases. However,t parents will not be allowed to choose embryos that will develop an abnormality. This clause has angered deaf parents who want a deaf child.

by Peter Black on March 23, 2008 at 3:32 pm. Reply #

“It is essentially the medieval notion that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception, and cannot be maintained in the face of a modern scientific understanding.”

Medieval theology held that ensoulment took place when the unborn child “quickened” (ie it could be felt by the mother) rather than at the point of conception.

“Quite apart from offending their outdated notions of the sanctity of life, they simply can’t bear the thought that we may (or may not) be about to see some spectacular medical cures which are going to make their own “miracles” look frankly silly”

I think that’s pretty implausible don’t you? Unlike the Christian Scientists, the Catholics have no objection at all to the majority of medical advances.

by Sean Fear on March 23, 2008 at 4:32 pm. Reply #

Medieval theology held that ensoulment took place when the unborn child “quickened” (i.e. it could be felt by the mother) rather than at the point of conception.

Ah, so we’ve regressed since medieval times. That’s good to know.

I think that’s pretty implausible don’t you? Unlike the Christian Scientists, the Catholics have no objection at all to the majority of medical advances.

It’s more just a fact, than implausible. The Catholic Church is implacably opposed to stem-cell research on theological grounds, and this is where some of the most dramatic developments may (or may not) emerge. We might find ourselves routinely bringing sight to the blind, unlike Jesus who performed the trick once 2,000 years ago (allegedly). Is it too much to suggest that the Catholic Church really doesn’t want this to happen?

by Laurence Boyce on March 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm. Reply #

Re: Peter Black’s question. I wonder if this is another instance where one’s political philosophy alone cannot provide all the answers. The central liberal dictum that the state should not prevent people doing what they like as long as they do not harm others (I’m simplifying hugely) doesn’t seem to help. If parents choose deaf embryo A in preference to hearing embryo B, it’s not obvious that the child that A becomes is harmed by this choice since, had the parents chosen otherwise, A would not have existed at all. My instinct is to condemn the parents’ choice, but I suspect that to do so I would have to call on resources outside of liberalism.

by Paul Griffiths on March 23, 2008 at 7:19 pm. Reply #

Re: Peter Black’s question. A hearing child can participate fully in deaf culture without any kind of barrier. A deaf child cannot participate in hearing culture. What kind of parent would purposefully deny their own child the widest possible range of opportunities?

by Jennie on March 23, 2008 at 7:48 pm. Reply #

Peter’s query has stumped we mere secularists – what does the church say?!

by john on March 23, 2008 at 8:06 pm. Reply #

I posed the question because I had a conversation with members of the British Deaf Association who told me that two deaf parents sometimes prefer to raise a deaf child. Their first language is BSL and their culture is one based around deafness.

The dilemma involved in the clause though goes beyond that. Do we have the right to genetically engineer the child of our choice or to remove defects in children before they are born? What does that say about those people who are already living a full life despite having those disabilities?

by Peter Black on March 23, 2008 at 8:08 pm. Reply #

I am fully aware that there is a deaf culture, but a hearing person can still participate in that culture should they choose to.

Deliberately inflicting a disability on your child in the name of culture is barbaric, and no amount of politically correct bollocks will convince me otherwise.

Mind you, I have similar views on infant circumcision, and that’s got me into trouble before, so…

by Jennie on March 23, 2008 at 8:28 pm. Reply #

This is not about inflicting disabilities but removing them or at least selecting healthy embryos above disabled ones.

by Peter Black on March 23, 2008 at 8:32 pm. Reply #

Very roughly, I think a “matter of conscience” is one which for one’s political philosophy provides no definitive response or guidance.

While I don’t quibble that this is the commonly understood definition of a matter of conscience, I do struggle to understand why under this definition the embryo bill – which is about medical research and thus potentially about enriching people’s lives in what seems very liberal to me – counts while the Lisbon Treaty bill – which was a vote on essentially the practicalities of a referendum and had little to do with political philosophy – didn’t.

I think a more accurate definition is that a “matter of conscience” is something the churches kick a fuss up about while everything else is something they could not care less about. The fact that neither the Church of England nor the Catholic church regard the alleviation of poverty as a “matter of conscience” tells you all you need to know about them.

by James Graham on March 23, 2008 at 8:52 pm. Reply #

Yes, genetic engineering does have consequences. It might be possible to use it do design out body hair and baldness (no problem there), but more alarmingly low intelligence as well (which might leave us with a dearth of unskilled manual workers – unless we can devise a totally mechanised refuse collection system from curtilage to tip).

This stuff about intentionally inflicting disabilities on children reminds me of a TV debate some years ago concerning AIDS. Some ghastly radical feminist type was saying there was nothing wrong whatsoever with AIDS infected people having children, because, even if the child dies in agony, he/she will “have five years of very valuable life”. The Guardian journalist, Ed Pearce, took a huge scunner to this, and so did I.

As for having a free vote on embryo research, while I resent the interference of unelected clerics, and have no serious objections to what the government is proposing, I think it is a long established Parliamentary convention that free votes are held on issues like abortion, capital and corporal punishment, etc.

by Sesenco on March 23, 2008 at 9:04 pm. Reply #

If parents choose deaf embryo A in preference to hearing embryo B, it’s not obvious that the child that A becomes is harmed by this choice since, had the parents chosen otherwise, A would not have existed at all.

But they have desperately harmed B, because B will not get a life at all. So either way, you are killing one embryo so that another may live.

Consider that you are a soul (sorry, Laurence) awaiting insertion into your mortal coil. You’re offered a choice: one body that can hear, and one that can’t. All other variables about the two bodies are the same. Which would you choose?

by sanbikinoraion on March 25, 2008 at 10:29 am. Reply #

matter of conscience: where personal prejudice overcomes better judgement.

Mind you, you can’t argue with experience, just individual responses to them, so the question about which is more rational is an open one.

Provided the constraints on the science do not allow the practice to stray outside accepted ethical guidelines I’m happy with embryo research, just as abortion is only desirable in cases of necessity – legality is the regulator and guarantor, not the permit-granter.

Outside of these areas debate will inevitably become conflicted, and as it is impossible to whip political principles (only conclusions) a free vote is the sensible option.

by Oranjepan on March 25, 2008 at 2:12 pm. Reply #

I think we need to get one thing straight. The people that the Bishops and Cardinals are campaigning for are not, for the most part, British citizens.

“Most Catholics”, and I’ll use an entire wing of my family as a sample, don’t agree with many of the policies coming out of the Vatican; e.g. abortion, contraception, stem-cell research etc. Even my gran who has posters of Ratzinger on the walls of her retirement home the way a teenager has pop-stars never agreed with many of those policies.

The people church officials are campaigning for are the 1 billion Catholics that aren’t in the UK, nor most of western Europe for that matter.

If the Chinese Communist party or Iran’s Mullahs were dictating terms to our MPs there would be total outrage, but because it’s the Catholic Church no one seems to object.

As to Peter’s question, parents that want to deliberately inflict a disability (and hence a disadvantage) on their child are simply sick. If you think allowing parents to chose a deaf child is okay, then what about a child without eyesight, or without legs or arms, a speech impediment, learning difficulties or with a degenerative disease? Which “disability” is it okay to allow? It’s like the evil-twin of designer babies. Instead of selecting for an advantage, the parents are trying to handicap (literally) their child’s chances in life.

How will the child feel? If I’d discovered my parents had done something like that to me for essentially their own selfish needs, I’d be so furious I’m not sure what I’d do; I’d certainly disown them.

by MartinSGill on March 25, 2008 at 3:50 pm. Reply #

Update on this…yes they will, kind of is the answer…http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7312715.stm

by Darrell on March 25, 2008 at 4:05 pm. Reply #

Such a sudden concession from Brown suggests Cameron was jumping the gun in making the call for a free vote when the specifics were still being worked out. It also proves that either Brown is trying to demonstrate a concilliatory side by encouraging the appearance of splits which he can use to show him in a ‘unifying’ light, or that he was off-the-ball by allowing hints of them to emerge in the first place.

by Oranjepan on March 25, 2008 at 6:25 pm. Reply #

MartinSGill – I doubt you could be angry at your parents for to ‘handicap’ you as a child, as that wouldn’t be in their power to choose. The debate about ‘designer babies’ is debased by much confusion between the theory and reality of the amount of ‘design’ that can be imposed/inflicted pre- or post-conception.

I understand your point about the global demographic spread of Catholic adherents, but the way you argue it you seem to exclude any contribution to the debate which UK-based believers might be able to make.
Anyway the sheer spead of catholic thought requires acceptance that it has unified a greater hold on the opinion of humanity, and so must also be accounted for (even if repudiated) to gain the widest possible democratic balance.

by Oranjepan on March 25, 2008 at 6:25 pm. Reply #

Oranjepan, the question related to the provision that parents are not allowed to choose “abnormal” embryos and this having angered some deaf parents. Those parents want to be able to deliberately choose to have a child that’s born deaf (i.e. handicapped). I consider this a crime comparable to physically harming a child to make him/her deaf.

I don’t exclude the UK Catholics. UK Catholics make up around 10% of our population. I doubt the majority of them share the vatican’s general views, which means that the church officials speak for a couple of single percent of the UK population. Your argument about accounting for catholic views is only valid if you extend that argument to include the Chinese communist party, which obviously with 2 billion members has an even greater hold on humanity and should therefore also be given a greater voice in our democratic debate?

The real problem with UK Catholics is that their representatives are not elected and certainly not representative. You’re not likely to remain a catholic official if you don’t toe the party line. If the catholic church officials would stop threatening MPs with ex-communication and stop spreading baseless horror stories about Frankenstein monsters in petri dishes long enough, we might actually get to hear what British Catholics think, instead of the bleating of the mouth-pieces of il duce in Rome.

Catholic officials are well known for spreading lies and trying to enforce their doctrine through terrorising populations, e.g. Small holes in condoms let HIV through. And western countries (that’s us) deliberately coating condoms in the AIDS virus.

They are trying the same tactics here.

by MartinSGill on March 25, 2008 at 8:44 pm. Reply #

Martin, it sounds like the Catholic church hits a particular nerve of yours.

I’m not going to defend individual priests or the ediface of the whole establishment, but from what I know of them all individuals are capable of making mistakes, so to characterise the promotion of wrongly-held beliefs as ‘spreading lies’ is unhelpful.

After such resounding criticism of catholicism I find it hard to read your descriptions as unbiased, best-informed or sympathetic, therefore I cannot find it within myself to accept your presentation of their arguments, especially as they are based on negation, supposition and guilt by analogous association.

I certainly disagree with aspects of the catholic approach toward human behaviour which ignores the ability of technology to impact upon our habits and choices, but they do still represent a respectable intellectual tradition and constituency that cannot simply be dismissed without consideration.

by Oranjepan on March 26, 2008 at 11:54 pm. Reply #

Other than I think it’s simple superstition, I have no real problem with Catholics or catholicism. As usual the problem comes down to organised religion, and a minority trying to force their views on others. Essentially they are trying to control their own faithful by forcing our government to be their puppet and to impose the laws that suit them and force their faithful (and everyone else) into line.

The catholic church touches a nerve because every single catholic I’ve ever met doesn’t hold the political views of vatican and therefore every catholic official is advocating a position their members don’t support. They are unelelected, unrepresentative and trying to force their views and conformance on everyone. That makes them dictators, and I don’t like dictators.

The problem isn’t so much that those idiot priests spout scientific untruths, everyone makes mistakes, the problem is that the vatican doesn’t correct those mistakes even though they know better. They endorse the lies and therefore make them official, and apparently part of their policy and that’s reprehensible.

Then there’s the hypocrisy of calling excessive wealth a sin while they live in their gold plated palace in Rome.

Finally, there’s the whole very depressing nature of catholicism itself, it’s entire focus and efforts are dedicated to sin and confession. Instead of celebrating the good things, the church spends all of it’s time telling it’s members they are sinners and need to confess to all the bad things they’ve done every week and be punished for them (probably by “instruction” people to make a “donation” to the church to pay for the next set of solid gold cutlery).

Maybe the catholic church should introduce braggings… where worshipers can go tell the priests all to good things they did this week and be rewarded for them. Focus on the good things for a change.

by MartinSGill on March 27, 2008 at 8:17 am. Reply #

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