Religion must not block progress

The Commons has usually debated and voted sensibly over on issues such as embryology. Will members -

Finally, on 19 May, MPs will get their chance to lay hands on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. After waiting weeks to discover if they would be allowed free votes over its most contentious elements, the bill is now to be subjected to the amendments desperately sought by religious and right-wing groups: curtailing stem-cell research, stopping the creation of saviour siblings and ensuring the naming and tracing of sperm donors. I look forward to a good punch-up . . . and defeat for the godly interventionists. The alternative - their victory - is too unpleasant to contemplate.

We should say it loudly and clearly. This bill, an updating of rules concerning fertility treatments and stem-cell science, is a critical piece of legislation which will ensure that Britain continues to play a vital role in international science and will help British researchers develop treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and heart conditions. Weaken it, and we will blunt scientists' powers to help the sick.

The issue goes beyond medical science. Many religious leaders - in particular the strident right of the Catholic Church - in an attempt to block the passage of the bill, have made claims of breath-taking inaccuracy and dishonesty. Should they succeed in watering it down, a most unfortunate and distasteful precedent will have been set.

An example is provided by Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who claimed that "we are about to have a public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion". The bill, he said, was "a monstrous attack" on human rights and dignity, presumably meaning the dignity of the unborn, as opposed to the dignity of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's sufferers who will be denied prospective treatments if he has his way.

His Easter Sunday speech is one of several made by senior clergymen and aimed at the "militantly atheist and secularist lobby" which, according to Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, is trying to "kill unborn children and surplus old people".

This is pernicious drivel by any standard: the remark about killing the old was an outrageous untruth, and the comparison with Frankenstein just daft. Scientists want to create hybrid human-animal embryos for their stem cells (whose DNA will be 99 per cent human) to learn how to use them as sources for making brain, heart or pancreatic tissue. No embryo will be kept alive beyond 14 days. There will be no cadaver composed of organs of criminals and no bringing it to life in the middle of a thunderstorm. By contrast, a few cells will be stored in test tubes for brief periods.

Right-wing amenders point out that no treatments from embryonic stem cells have yet been developed. Again, this is misleading. No treatments have been developed for the simple reason that the science is in its infancy. Hence the introduction of this bill - to encourage the necessary research. In short, we should give scientists time.

And consider the issue of a child's need to have "supportive parenting" if he or she is to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation. Pro-life MPs, led by the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and Labour's Geraldine Smith, want this replaced with words about a child's "need for a father". This would almost certainly be interpreted as meaning that IVF could only be given to women who can name the man providing the sperm for fertilisation. Anonymous donations would be forbidden - no problem for women in steady heterosexual relationships, but a real headache for single and lesbian women seeking IVF, who could be blocked from receiving such treatment.

Amenders defend their plans by saying that children ought to know who their father is and accuse the bill's backers of "hammering a nail into the coffin of the traditional family". Without fathers, boys join gangs and teenage girls become pregnant, it is claimed. But the argument is specious. The numbers born through IVF are small. The "horrors" that amenders see on our council estates have a completely different cause. Their proposal looks more like discrimination against single women and lesbians than an effort to help society.

There are, in short, nasty undercurrents to a bill that should be seen as an attempt to help science serve society. The House of Commons has usually debated and voted sensibly over such issues. Will members - particularly those who are Catholic - hold their nerve and do the right thing on this occasion?

Robin McKie is the Observer's science editor

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel