Monday, 12 May 2008

Embryos and Parliament - Part One

My thanks first and foremost to Ben Goldacre for advertising the second reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the House of Commons. And more importantly, my thanks to Evan Harris MP and his team for organising a demonstration of support on the lawns across from Parliament House, which I attended today.

See, Parliament was today debating whether to pass this important Bill, and Dr. Harris rightly thought it was about time the scientific and medical community voiced its support for the research that would be permitted by said legislation, in a regulated and tightly controlled framework, using human embryonic stem cells and so-called 'human-animal hybrid embryos.' The afternoon began with a gathering at Old Palace Yard of scientists, clinicians, charities representing patients with debilitating and fatal conditions such as Parkinson's disease, and Members of Parliament. In keeping with organisations such as Pro-Test, this group aimed to show MPs and the press that it isn't just pro-life Christian groups that can voice their position on the issues raised by the Bill.

I won't go into the details of what the Bill itself entails - that you can read about in excellent detail here or here. The point of this blog post is rather to applaud the efforts of the 'pro-science lobby' that turned up to support a vote in favour of extending the repertoire of scientific research over precluding avenues of investigation purely on the basis of minority objections.

Whether the small gathering (I guess there were around fifty people present) will influence the vote, or the shape the final legislation takes, is hard to tell. But let that take nothing away from the message the demonstration was intended to give: based on current scientific understanding, human embryonic stem cells provide a good potential source of therapies and model systems for testing novel therapies, and so this new framework is required and supported by the scientific community as 'necessary, ethical and right' to quote Dr. Harris.

As the gathering moved out of the sun and into the House of Commons, I was amongst the lucky few that watched the beginning of the debate surrounding the Bill. Alan Johnson MP eloquently moved for the Bill, and during his speech interesting interjections from various Members showed the current debate for what it is. We heard MPs from either side speak in favour of supporting science, whilst some raised objections - the difference was that those in favour cited peer-reviewed, scientific studies to support their argument, those against were only able to prop themselves up on a queasiness expressed by religious groups, pro-lifers and their supporters. What today's debate boiled down to was, quite simply, whether we want to live in a country where evidence-based policy permits tightly regulated and ethically sound research into treatments for life-threatening disease, or in a country which falls foul of the vocal and at times intimidating minority that would prefer to see potential advances in medical science fade as long as their religious sensibilities are not disturbed.

I'll share my other experiences of the day when time permits - for now, suffice to say that as science progresses, as our country forms the vanguard of world-class biomedical research, us scientists ought to be prepared to come out of the woodwork more often to support the Parliamentary ratification of our evidence-based approach to health and disease.

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