Monday, 24 March 2008

The Embryo Bill and the hypocrisy of the "pro-life" movement

It is a brutal irony that Easter, the time of the spring equinox and the "rebirth" of the world, has coincided with the so-called "Pro-Life" movement's - led by the Catholic Church - latest assault on advances that could save lives and improve the quality of life of millions of people.

During the last couple of weeks, nobody living in the UK can have failed to notice the furore over the Embryo Bill, ignited by Gordon Brown's good-intentioned but foolhardy decision to impose a three-line whip in an attempt to pass the Bill, and stoked by the hysteria of the Religious Right and of reactionary tabloids such as the Daily Mail.

Whatever the democratic implications of the three-line whip on MPs' votes, the implications for democracy of unaccountable, unelected religious leaders being able to lobby MPs more directly, and with more success, than any of their constituents ever could is far more worrying. Whilst the Bishops wax lyrical about freedom of conscience and a free vote, what they really stand for is an enforcement of Church orthodoxy. And, of course, it is not just MPs and members of the public who belong to the church who must conform to that orthodoxy but also, far more worryingly, the entire country and legislature. And, as usual with religious moralising, it is not just the ideals of democracy and secularism that will suffer if they win the argument, but some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, among others, are debilitating diseases that drastically reduce the quality of life for the sufferers and lead to little more than a slow and painful death. Stem-cell research, and particularly embryo research, is the best hope that these people have for a cure. Yet this is one of the most-contended items of the bill, with the religious ignorantly speaking of "Frankenstein science" and a "monstrous" diminishing of what it means to be human. None of these objections hold weight. The embryos - microscopic clusters of cells and nothing more - would never be implanted into a woman and could only be used for life-saving research. Scientists have already proven, through tests on mice, that the research has incredible potential. To call the objections "consciencious" or "moral" is nothing short of a knowing lie, and to put ancient dogma above improving the quality of life for millions, even going so far as to call such a drive "selfish" as some commentators have, is truly monstrous and immoral.

Even the other proposals on the bill, all of them sensible and progressive, have come under fire from the fundamentalists. The bill scraps the archaic requirment that clinics consider the need for a father when considering fertility treatment, ending discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and single parents. It gives both parties in a gay couple the legal status of parents.

Opposition to these measures derives from a couple of verses in the illiberal Dark Ages tome known as the Book of Leviticus and from an archaic notion that only children raised by a married, heterosexual couple turn out well.

In reality, homosexual couples and single parents can raise children just as well, contrary to Christian propaganda, and all the child requires is to be raised in a loving and caring environment. Having a mother and a father is no protection against child abuse or neglect, as such a broad prejudice fails to take the qualities of the individual parents into account. And if a lesbian concieves through IVF, it is only sensible that her partner also gains the legal status of parent, and the same applies for gay men. It is far better that the law considers those raising a child as its parents than some far away individual who doesn't necessarily have any interest in them.

The science behind the bill has been largely proven to work, and more evidence emerges daily to validate this, whilst the morality behind it is only flawed to a religious mind more concerned with scripture and dogma than practical experience. In a world where an overwhelming majority are atheists or non-religious, and an even greater majority are secularists, it is important that the views of the superstitious minority do not dominate discourse and determine policy. Especially in areas so crucial to the advancment of society and improving our way of life.