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Philip Walker: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill - echoes of the slave trade?

Philip Walker is a member of the Conservative Party in Stevenage. 

I wonder if the current financial crisis could have the effect of burying another crucial event which could have an equally huge impact on our society, albeit in other ways: the coming before the House of Commons on Wednesday of the contentious and potentially unpopular Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill for its final stages.  There was speculation that the Government postponed the final stages from the summer to avoid alienating public opinion even further at the time of the Glasgow East by-election.  Labour lost the Crewe and Nantwich by-election just after the amendments to lower the abortion time limit were defeated. I understand that the SNP candidate who won Glasgow East opposes abortion on demand and is extremely uncomfortable with embryo experimentation. 

But why do I see a connection between the slave trade and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill?  I think the use, exploitation, of humans as commodities, which the slave trade clearly was, and which was clearly an assault on human dignity. Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, and branded with hot irons and shackled to endure the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic. They were crammed together on decks that had less than five feet of headroom, little ventilation, air unfit for breathing and, in some cases, not even enough space to place buckets for human waste, with 20% of them dying from inevitable disease.  European traders would export manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa where they would be exchanged for slaves. 

The first definition of a “commodity” in the Oxford Dictionary is “an article or raw material that can be bought and sold, esp. a product as opposed to a service.”  In the slave trade human beings were used as commodities to be brought and sold for the purpose of profit. Slaves were sold in the Americas for huge profit, and traders used the money to buy raw materials which were shipped back and sold in Europe. Slavery needed a large support network of shipping services, ports, and finance and insurance companies. New industries were created, processing the raw materials harvested or extracted by slaves in the Americas. Therefore it can be claimed that the commercial and industrial revolutions were built at least in part on the slave trade. 

A major driving force behind the HFE Bill is a desire for the UK to lead in this embryo research, obviously hoping it would bring financial benefit to this country.  But the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos would take us even further out of line with other countries in Europe and beyond where such practice remains illegal, and can even mean imprisonment.  We have already breached the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine by allowing the creation of human embryos for research purposes. The Government originally planned to ban animal-human hybrid embryos because of public concern, but it caved into pressure from scientists and the financially motivated biotechnology industry.

Charities that support sufferers from debilitating diseases and much of the science lobby, want the provisions of the Bill, as they want to relieve the suffering caused buy these diseases. We all want to relieve suffering and see the sick healed. But it must be common sense to concentrate effort on technologies that have already produced results. Research which doesn’t come with ethical qualms, (adult stem cells, cells from umbilical chord blood etc), has produced more than 70 successful treatments. Human embryo stem cell research: none. Animal-human hybrids are just as unlikely to produce any.

There are higher motives behind this aspect of the Bill – the relief of suffering caused by diseases – than there were behind the slave trade. But the end never justifies the means, particularly when there are ethical and much more successful alternatives, and particularly as human-animal hybrid embryos, by removing the species barrier between humans and animals, would be an assault on human dignity.  Animal-human hybrids strike at the very heart of what it means to be human, at our specialness as humans. 

The second definition of a “commodity” in the Oxford Dictionary is “a useful thing”.  Therefore an item that is bought or sold is not the only definition of a commodity.  Animal-human hydrids are to be created, as are human embryos that are already allowed to be created for research purposes, just for their use.  I understand some scientists claim it should be possible to turn embryonic stem cells into ‘repair kit’ for healing damaged tissue and disease.  That is embryos created to be useful things. Never mind the value of human beings to be cherished and loved just for being human. 

The current abortion law means that unborn babies that are inconvenient – an opposite of being useful - are discarded. Amendments to the HFE Bill threaten to further liberalise the abortion law.  Perhaps it could be said the slave trade was the captivity of the innocent, while abortion is the murder of the innocent. 

The removal of the need to take into account a child’s need for a father when considering an IVF application, seems to be to satisfy the ‘rights’ of adults in other than heterosexual relationships to parenthood, more than the best interests of the child. And this at a time when objective research has been showing that children need both mum and dad (preferably married). 

The ‘saviour siblings’ provisions in the HFE Bill certainly to my mind have a clear echo of the slave trade.  The Bill allows children to be born whose cells or tissues could be of medical use for the medical treatment of a serious medical condition in a sibling.  The primary purpose of their existence being of use to another. Imagine the crippling emotional impact that will have on that person’s life.  Human beings as commodities. The embryo whose cells or tissues that can be of use, would be allowed to live. Embryos that don’t have the necessary qualities to be used, perhaps we could say are not ‘pure enough’, would be discarded. (Similar considerations could be relevant to the issue of aborting handicapped babies up to birth.)  Slaves delivered to the sea captains on the African coast that were not deemed of sufficient strength to be of use were beaten or even beheaded.

If I’m correct in this analysis, perhaps we should ponder how ironic it is that it is just after commemorating the 200th anniversary of Britain abolishing the slave trade, we are seriously near to passing a Bill into law that has so many echoes of that trade.    This chilling Bill should be thrown out, or at least very substantially amended so that benefits can be obtained without the attacks on human life and dignity.   If it is passed, a compassionate Conservative government should repeal/amend it as necessary at the earliest opportunity.


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