We no longer make proper law in the UK; we prefer to make exceptions.
A letter from the UK Government, to clarify issues of consent raised during the recent debates on the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Bill, has been circulated to the House of Lords this week. It shows a wretched weakening of position in relationship to the creation of embryos and the issue of informed consent. In essence Government are saying that the interests of research could now trump previous robust prohibitions on the use of human tissue where proper consent was not available.
This horrifying change of direction is expressed in the usual ‘no but, yes but’ weasel language of our current Government:
‘ … the Government takes the view that it would be possible to make an exception for the requirement for express consent, provided that stringent safeguards are in place.’ *
When CORE read the first draft of this Bill, our greatest criticism was in relationship to its total flexibility. Nothing was to be written in stone; get-out clauses backed up any attempt to write absolutes. Nothing was to impede the scientific gurus and their extraordinary capacity to come up with more and more appalling proposals.
The one tiny corner they were prepared to hold on to was in relationship to the issue of informed consent. All it took to wind them was a bout of whingeing from the usual suspects and a letter in The Times, and the Government was on its knees again. And so a lonely prohibition crumbles, and joins all the other compromise positions in this dreadful Bill.
The current exception is argued to facilitate the creation of human embryos, animal/human hybrids, and any other distortion of the beginning of life, with cells taken from donors unable to give informed consent. Such donors could be children or deceased adults or anonymised donors who donated long ago and who would be none the wiser that new life was being created from their tissue.
The convoluted justification for this abuse of human rights is inevitably couched in tear-jerking rhetoric about desperate childhood diseases. These claims are outdated scientific nonsense, but to listen to the debates in the House of Lords one might imagine that the only cure for such diseases is to implant immediately tissue derived from embryonic cells of interspecies embryos.
This is a wicked manipulation of the scientific reality, and distracts from the real progress being made in legitimate stem cell applications.
The dismissive attitude to the issues of consent, however, may prove an own-goal for the Government. CORE sees a growing reluctance on the part of the public to trust the scientific community, and ethical tissue donations are likely to suffer as a result. Alder Hey is still very fresh in the public memory.
And finally – the European Court of Human Rights is unlikely to agree with the UK Government.
*Letter from Lord Darzi, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, 31 January 2008, circulated prior to final stage of Bill on Monday 4 February.