Yuk factor or SPUC factor?: Linda Grant on how anti-abortion campaigners are influencing the public debate on infertility treatments

Linda Grant
Saturday 16 July 1994 23:02

THIS week Britain will settle the matter of the 'yuk factor'. On Wednesday, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) releases the first results of its nationwide consultation process on a wide range of morally and scientifically complex issues to do with potential advances in infertility treatment, including the use of eggs from aborted foetuses.

But, before the responses have even been analysed in detail, it appears that what set out in January to be the largest ever survey of public opinion on scientific research has become the target of an orchestrated campaign by the 'pro-life' anti- abortion movement.

Until its press conference this week, the HFEA will only officially confirm that it has received over 10,000 submissions from many sources: individuals, churches, sixth-formers, womens' groups, professional and other organisations. But there are hints that the pro-life lobby has co-ordinated a massive response. The Independent on Sunday has obtained literature about the HFEA's public consultation sent out by SPUC, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, to its 47,000 members. It includes petition forms and outline notes to help members write their own letters of response.

One leaflet shows a photograph of a foetus apparently being prodded by a male hand: 'This aborted baby was kept alive in a tank and used for research until he died,' the caption reads. 'Even worse abuses are now being planned. Doctors are proposing to take the ova (egg cells) from aborted baby girls and use them to make 'test tube babies' for infertile women. Unless we object to such practices now and make our objection known, scientists funded from public and private sources may receive official sanction to pursue this kind of research.'

In a further, fund-raising leaflet the organisation explains that it has allocated a budget of pounds 11,525 to the campaign, including pounds 1,725 for its petition and pounds 3,550 for 'nationwide lobbying efforts'.

While SPUC has been rallying its membership, the HFEA's consultation process has been to some extent pre- empted from another quarter. Late on Tuesday night, the House of Lords voted by 57 votes to 35 to outlaw the use of eggs from aborted foetuses in infertility treatment. It was the end of a successful private campaign by Dame Jill Knight MP, who had introduced it earlier this year as an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. (It was passed by the Commons, without a division, in April.)

Why has Dame Jill's amendment been passed before the results of the consultation were known? Speaking in opposition, Baroness Jeger told the Lords that she thought it was unconstitutional that a statutory body (the HFEA) had been hijacked by its own government. She referred to friends who had told her they had contributed to the consultation and now believe that it had been a waste of time and that Parliament was making a 'farce' of the discussion.

It is understood that Dame Jill's amendment is now part of the Criminal Justice Bill, and there will be no further opportunity to debate it.

Paul Tully, SPUC's national information officer, defends the timing of the amendment. SPUC objected, he said, to Government setting up the HFEA in the first place: 'It acts as get-out for politicians who want to see these practices but don't want to answer to Parliament for them.'

SPUC counts Dame Jill as one of the supporters of its organisation, which was founded in 1966 to oppose the introduction of the Abortion Act the following year, and is funded, it says, entirely by members' contributions.

But can one object to the activities of the pro-lifers when there are other, equally vociferous campaign organisations adding their own contribution to the debate?

The pro-life movement, argues Ann Furedi, assistant director of the Birth Control Trust, 'has been allowed to set the agenda because there is not an equally strong voice making another case'.

The pro-choice organisations are, she says, 'fragmented and underfunded'. The National Abortion Campaign, set up in the mid-Seventies to oppose a bill reversing the 1967 Act, teeters from one financial crisis to the next.

'We haven't orchestrated a letter writing campaign partly because we haven't got the money but partly because we have faith in the democratic process and the HFEA to look at the issues in a dispassionate way,' says NAC spokeswoman Emma Gibson. 'We didn't want to get over-involved in this issue. We thought that the way it was being handled was commendable.'

Research from the United States, says Ann Furedi, shows that pro-choice activists tend to be working women involved in a variety of political activities, while pro-life supporters are more likely to work within the home and to dedicate their spare time to single issue campaigns which increases the effctiveness of their lobby.

Why has pro-life invested so much energy into the HFEA consultation process? One leading supporter of the pro-life movement, who refused to be named, told the Independent on Sunday that Dame Jill's amendment had been moved because the consultation process was 'flawed'. She claimed that at HFEA meetings pro-life members had been told 'from the chair' that opponents would 'have their views disregarded' and the membership of the body had been 'packed'.

SPUC agrees that the HFEA 'did not want their meetings used to air the profound objections that groups like us expressed. We've been shut up by the chairman of the meeting,' according to Paul Tully.

The HFEA denies that it has ignored the responses from opponents to the use of foetal matter. It suggests that the problem with many of their arguments is that they are outside the current legal framework in which HFEA has to work, where not only is abortion legal, but embryos are already produced in vitro for research and treatment, as is the use of foetal tissue under guidelines already adopted by the Department of Health. In other words, pro-

life is lodging objections to the law as it stands. There are suggestions that the pro-life movement is attempting to use the consultation process to re-open the debate on abortion and pursue legislation which would give equal rights under the law to the foetus.

Janet Hadley, currently writing a book on the international politics of abortion for Virago, believes that the current campaign is part of an effort to find a back door into overturning the 1967 Abortion Act, which has so far proved extremely resistant to extensive amendment. 'Having spent almost a year researching this issue both here and in the US,' she says 'it seems to me that one of their main areas of attack is to talk up the moral status of the embryo. A classic example of that was Enoch Powell's Private Member's Bill in 1985 which sought to say that a foetus was a human being.

'In the US there have been actions brought against women whose behaviour could harm the unborn child, such as smoking or using drugs. The long-term thinking is to create a climate of opinion and get on the statute book recognition of the foetus as the equivalent to an adult woman with the moral capacity to make decisions about whether she wishes to continue with a pregnancy.'

SPUC may be right in one sense. It argues that public consultation should not take precedence over the authority of Parliament. In this case it seems that the public consultation may have been heavily influenced by the efforts of a very large, well-organised campaign group which does not reflect the overwhelming support that every British opinion poll shows for the continued legal status of abortion.

Despite the best efforts of the HFEA, how democratic has democracy been in action?

(Photograph omitted)

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