Perhaps the most striking feature of the debate on the second reading of the Human Fertilisation and Human Embryology on Monday was the large number of MPs who abstained from voting. Only just over half of those eligible to vote did so. It suggests that perhaps a large number of legislators have still to make up their minds on the wide variety of issues encompassed within the Bill.
The picture was complicated yesterday with the publication of a raft of amendments which MPs have laid down for debate next week. A large number might have been expected, given the range of contentious issues – from human-animal research embryos to saviour siblings and whether the law should decree that babies born by IVF must have a father. But many of the amendments are not concerned with all that but with whether the time limit for abortion should be reduced from the current 24 weeks. There are proposals that it should be reduced to 22 weeks, 20 weeks, 16 weeks or fewer.
There is little doubt that the temperature of the debate about abortion has changed in recent times. The introduction of 4-D ultrasound techniques, showing foetuses of just 12 weeks with apparent facial expressions, has dramatised the debate. So have couples coming back from hospital and proudly showing off photos of their baby at its 12-week scan. So have stories of the survival of babies born at 22 weeks, and younger, when abortion would still be legal.
It is clear the Government has allowed insufficient time for consideration of the wide range of issues this Bill throws up. MPs on both sides of yesterday's debate – from the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, who wants embryos to be licensed for use in transplant therapy as well as fertility treatment or medical research, to the Conservative David Burrowes, who wants to strengthen an IVF baby's right to a father – were united in their indignation that just three hours has been given to debate the three most contentious issues: admixed embryos, saviour siblings and the need for a father.
MPs should bear in mind that most of the population does not hold to an absolutist position of either religious right or libertarian left on these matters. On abortion there is a widespread sense, philosophically incoherent or not, that the rights of the foetus increase with its ability to feel pain and to survive outside the womb. Gordon Brown was right yesterday when he said there was no scientific evidence about the sentience or survival rates of unborn babies which pointed to the need to lower the 24-week limit set in 1990. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine and the Royal College of Nursing all agree.
A renewed debate about abortion is not needed at this point. It would be wrong if the little parliamentary time allocated to this Bill was wasted on that. This newspaper believes all the evidence is that a stable lesbian couple can bring up a child as well as a heterosexual couple can. We think there is no reason why families who want a second child because cells from the umbilical cord will save the life of an older brother will not love the second as much as the first.
And we argue that admixed embryos are not Frankenstein monsters which will spark to life in a thunderstorm, but unimplanted cell-clusters which will allow researchers to make brain, heart or pancreatic tissue and research cures into illnesses such as multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's.
We accept that there are other views about all this. That is what we would like to hear from our MPs. They should not squander the time with an unnecessary debate about abortion.