Private Member’s bills usually attract little attention, but Mr. Enoch Powell’s measure-the Unborn Children Protection Bill- is not in this category. It’s importance is underscored by the fact that, although attendance in the House of Commons is usually sparse on Fridays, an unusually large number of Members attended the Bill’s second reading on Friday February 15 1985. The vote was 238-66 or 78.6 per cent for the bill.
The great interest of the general public on the issue of embryo experimentation could be seen in the 623 petitions presented to Parliament. Eleven petitions were presented just before the debate started, and one of these contained 2 million signatures. According to one newspaper report, this petition, which was organized by Life and handed to former Conservative Minister, Norman St. John Stevas, is the largest petition presented to Parliament since on by the Chartist movement 150 years ago.
During the debate Mr. Powell explained why he introduced the Bill. He said that, when he read the Warnock report on the ethics of human fertilization, he was shocked by the committee’s majority recommendation that experimentations be allowed on human embryos up to 14 days after fertilization. He felt “a deep and instinctive sense of repugnance at the proposition that a human life in embryo should be subjected to experimentation for the acquisition of knowledge.” He added that it could be seen that millions of people shared this repugnance.
The Bill has a single purpose: to render it unlawful for a human embryo, created by in-vitro fertilization to be used as a subject for experimentation, except to enable a women to bear a child. The Bill is not concerned with abortion, nor with surrogate motherhood.
Mr. Powell who is a Unionist, representing South Down, Northern Ireland, was supported by Mr. Norman St. John Stevas, a Conservative, and by Mr. Alan Beith, a Liberal M.P. and sponsor of the Bill. Mr. St. John Stevas stated that:
We know beyond the faintest scintilla of a doubt that the embryo is a unique form of matter, that it is human, that it is alive… That being so, it is morally wrong to simulate its creation to bring it into existence for the purpose of experimentation or dissection, or merely to discard it as useless into a dust bin.
Mr. Beith (who on an earlier occasion had said that it is time for society to tell scientists what they can do, and not wait for scientists to say what they have done) stressed the need for immediate legislation and not wait for a widening of research.
The speaker for the Labour Party, Miss Joe Richardson, attacked the Bill claiming that it would set back research on congenital malformations, and male and female infertility. (It is worth nothing that a few days earlier the renowned Dr. Jerome LeJeune had said that other lines of research made embryo experimentation unnecessary.)
During the debate, a group of five women created a disturbance in the Strangers’ Gallery and were ejected. Outside the Parliament buildings another group of 200 women staged a demonstration. One report quotes Miss Kate Marshall, general secretary of the Revolutionary Communist party as saying: “We have organized this demonstration because it is an attack on the rights of women to control their own bodies.” Obviously they were ignorant, or uncaring of the issues involved in the Bill.
The Bill now passes into its committee state and leaves the Government with problems concerning the measure which it intends to introduce, based on the Warnock Report, i.e. to allow experimentation for the first 14 days after fertilization.
One other debate of major significance to the “Unborn Children (Protection) Bill” took place on Thursday February 12- the eve of the Second Reading. By chance, the days leading up to this Reading coincided with the General Synod of the Church of England. Some time ago the Church’s Board of Social Responsibility had endorsed the Warnock Report. However, on Wednesday February 13 the Bishop of Norwhich, Maurice Wood, made a plea for an emergency debate on the Report. He was strongly supported by many others who felt it essential that the Church of England should make its views known before Parliament met on Friday. Despite some opposition the emergency debate took place on Thursday evening as a result the General Synod rejected the policy of its own Board for Social Responsibility with regard to the Warnock Report. The Synod refused to endorse a policy, which supported research on embryos, or the creation of embryos for research.
Meanwhile Cardinal Hume, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, played his part in the lobbying campaign for the Bill. He sent a letter to every member of the House of Commons saying that if this opportunity to legislate were not taken, then the prospect of further scientific success and momentum of research might make it impossible to act.
Embryonic research, cross-species fertilization, genetic engineering, etc. are being carried on in laboratories in many parts of the world, directly or indirectly at the public expense, but without public knowledge or approval. Mr. Powell’s Bill would put an end to this in Britain and indirectly affect other areas.
Pro-lifers owe a deep debt of gratitude to Mr. Powell for his success in scooping the Government which ahs promised to introduce legislation based on the Warnock Report within the lifetime of the present Parliament. He has avoided the situation where anti-life legislation is introduced and the pro-life movement fights a rear-guard action. Instead he ahs gone on the attack and his Bill has provided both a focus and a forum to show the Government the strength of pro-life sentiment. Any future measure based on the Warnock report must take this feeling into account. The Government cannot overlook the hundreds of petitions, the millions of signatures, the urgency of the Established Church of England in making its views known, the Roman Catholic population and the views of the Members of Parliament.
Sponsors for Private Members’ Bills say it is increasingly hard to get the 100 Members needed for a vote on Fridays. Earlier this session, when some Members complained that he debate on the Warnock report (to which Mr. Powell’s Bill is a response) would be on a Friday, they were told that if the issue were important enough M.P.s should take the trouble to be there. On Friday February 15 238 M.P.s did take the trouble to be there and vote for the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill and against the Warnock report.