Friday May 25, 2001
There was a point a few months ago when it looked as though Liam Fox, the Conservative health spokesman, was prepared to associate the party with an anti-abortion position. He made his personal opposition clear but the party managers drew back from the issue as a step too far towards US-style compassionate conservatism. The British electorate, unlike the US, has shown no appetite for a debate about abortion.
Less clearcut is the issue of stem cell research. When the embryology regulations were amended in a measure rushed through parliament just before the Christmas break, there was considerable concern that the public had not been given time to fully absorb the implications of extracting stem cells from embryos, and in particular that this was a step down a slippery slope towards cloning and that a vital principle about the ethics of using embryos had been breached.
Some felt the debate had been prematurely cut short by a medical lobby which promised miraculous cures from stem cell research for a range of neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. In fact, six months on those claims are looking much more uncertain after the implanting foetal tissue in the brain left many participants in an experiment in the US incurably damaged.
Why should they be talking about it?
Firstly, stem cell research is the essential first step for cloning. In response to concern in the Lords, the government promised a bill banning cloning. But the fear expressed in Europe and the US is that the knowledge developed in stem cell research and essential for cloning could easily slip out of the country to less scrupulous laboratories. The slippery slope argument is rightly challenged - the embryology regulations, for example, have effectively regulated the use of embryos for more than 10 years.
There is a big issue here about the public accountability of science and, given the recent experience of BSE and genetically modified food, the public's trust in scientists has been badly shaken.
What could be done?
A bill banning cloning should be introduced early in the next parliament. The government should initiate and encourage public participation in the policy making process on problematic ethical issues; citizens' juries are one way to draw in the opinions and beliefs of ordinary people so that it is not just a narrow elite of experts and churchmen who are left to decide ethics. Such is the fear of "Frankenstein" science that the government and scientists have to actively engage the public.