The god squad bites back


8:30 am - March 26th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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So, the Prime Minister has decided that MPs should be allowed a free vote on “ethical” aspects of the upcoming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I can only think of expletives in response to how quickly this govt has capitulated to pressure from the Catholic Church. And its not the bloody Tories who are the main problem here but the Labour god squad in the form of Des Browne, Ruth Kelly and Paul Murphy. Coerced helpfully by mad rantings by the Catholic Church, naturally.

They. Must. Be. Stopped. I can’t put it better than Polly Toynbee or David Aaronovitch did yesterday.
More from:
Dave Osler: Embrylogy bill: in defence of liberation biology
Shiraz Socialist: The Fertilisation Bill: the rational counter-attack
Stroppyblog: Politicians And Their Consciences

On this bill, I also agree with Dominic Lawson on why deaf parents should be given the choice to have deaf children. Oh, and the nutjobs have come up with another campaign website.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Well this is what happens when the focus is on one form of religious extremism (radical Islam) and not all forms; they can organise easier without the glare of public attention…

Stumbling and Mumbling makes excellent points today on this privileging of religion.

http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/

Is 42 day detention not an “ethical” issue?
Is the ID card not an “ethical” issue?

Though not sure what the abuse achieves.
You have posted your view on abortion on the PP site; you regard the unborn child as the woman’s property to do with as she chooses right up to the moment of birth.
I regard that as a “nutjob” attitude!

Dominic Lawson is really bad on selecting embryos for (a higher likelihood of) deafness. The case he makes seems to be that preservation of deaf culture matters. Firstly, you need to show, which he doesn’t even attempt, that only deaf people can experience deaf culture. It’s hard to imagine that a child born to deaf parents would not learn sign language and be able to participate in various aspects of deaf culture, even if it might not be as important to them as to deaf people. Secondly, you need to be able to show that parents have a sufficiently compelling interest in preserving their culture to be justify to inflicting a disability on their children. Say we could select embryos for (a higher likelihood of) adherence to a specific religion. I think any liberal would rightly resist that, yet selecting for deafness, if anything, must be worse, since religious faith is presumably rationally revisable in a way that a physical disability is not, and does not rule out anything like as many options.

I think that the best argument against allowing the selection of deaf embryos is to consider whether the unborn soul, as-yet unallocated to a mortal body, would choose a deaf body over a hearing body. If such souls existed (and obviously I’m sure that they don’t), then I am fairly certain that they would all choose to have the hearing body, thank you very much.

Secondly, you need to be able to show that parents have a sufficiently compelling interest in preserving their culture to be justify to inflicting a disability on their children.

I’m not sure if you guys understand the issue correctly, so maybe some clarification is needed here.

The point here isn’t that deafness is being ‘inflicted’ on babies. the point is that some babies are conceived with deafness. Right now, those embryos are discarded in favour of ‘healthy’ ones. Deaf people not only want the choice to select those deaf ones, but also are saying that deaf people are not to be discarded just because society sees them as lacking in something.

To me that is an inhumane attitude and I’m frankly appalled that people are trying to make out that its deaf people who want to ‘engineer’ deaf kids or something.

Hang on Sunny, let’s paint the complete picture here: those deaf people want to select the deaf embryos and discard the healthy ones. Discarded because they have been judged to be lacking in something by the deaf parents.

Either way, some embryos come to term and some don’t. The net result by allowing the selection of deaf babies is that some deaf couples can elect to have deaf children, whether or not that child is going to find their life constrained considerably more severely than the hearing child that was discarded such that the deaf couple could have a deaf child.

I am not saying that deaf people are lesser people than hearing people, but to claim that they are as healthy as hearing people is just bonkers.

“but also are saying that deaf people are not to be discarded just because society sees them as lacking in something.

To me that is an inhumane attitude…”

Erm, but aren’t you also in favour of abortion on *any* grounds (including disability) and at any time up to birth?

Is that not an equivalently “inhumane attitude”?

those deaf people want to select the deaf embryos and discard the healthy ones.

It doesn’t quite work like that. They’re saying that if the choice was availble between a deaf and a normal hearing embryo, then they should be able to select the deaf one. I see that as fine.

They clearly don’t feel that children who grow up to be deaf should never be allowed to enter the world in the first place. What’s wrong with that. the current situation itself is actually genetic selection, where any embryo with ‘abnormalities’ are discarded. Why? Because we want to create a perfect society? That’s a dangerous route to go down to.

Is that not an equivalently “inhumane attitude”?

No, because there you have competing rights between the woman who is actually pregnant, and a piece of flesh that hasn’t actually been born yet. I choose the latter’s rights over the former.

9. Kate Belgrave

You’re absolutely right, Sunny.

The problem I have with this latest development is not so much the god-squad, but the fact that Gordon Brown simply cannot take a tough stance. I could almost picture him tearing around on the weekend, running backwards and forwards between the radio and the papers, flapping his hands and capitulating again and again to whomever yelled at him last…

He’s so disgustingly, repulsively WEAK.

Aha, the good old slippery slope argument: “we should let parents choose deaf babies now because if we don’t then we are condoning eugenics”. That’s simply not true, and this particular situation is so far off the other end of the spectrum that it’s irrelevant.

Imagine you could decide before you were born whether you would be able to hear or not. Which would you choose?

Whoa there! Since when does parenthood become a restaurant where choices are selected from the carte-du-jour?

It usually isn’t a choice between (for example) a deaf foetus and a non-deaf foetus, usually it’s a choice between having one or other and having none.

Choices are not made in theory, only when the real prospect of the consequences becomes concrete. Prpoosing unreal situations and false questions is how wrong-headed people create division in their opponents – don’t fall into their trap.

12. douglas clark

My recollection of the arguement is that deaf people think that, contrary to all evidence, that deafness is not a disability. And that therefore they should be allowed to deliberately select a foetus that is likely to be deaf. That is a nonsense of an arguement. Clearly, any woman that becomes pregnant has a choice to make about carrying the foetus to term or not, but the eugenic arguement, in terms of deliberately selecting for deafness, is just ridiculous.

I accept the rest of the arguement that you are making. I just happen to think that subscribing to this frankly militant and wrong position does our side no favours whatsoever.

Be clear about it. It is deaf folk who are advocating eugenics here.

Sunny

Leaving aside your views on the church – I think phrases like “god squad,” “mad rantings” and “nutjobs” are unnecessarily inflammatory but we’ve already had that argument – I really struggle to understand how you can defend the use of the parliamentary whipping system on an issue such as this.

Quite apart from the fact that there is a long tradition of MPs being allowed free votes on issues of religious conscience, I would have thought that a distinctively liberal position would be to argue for fewer, rather than more whipped votes.

On this point I find myself in rare agreement with Guido who wrote the following on Tuesday:

“The party whip is too strong in Britain, in legislatures where laws are negotiated more pragmatically and in a less partisan fashion the laws are better made….it seems right that if it isn’t in the manifesto, every issue should be a free vote.”

In fact, as I have pointed out on my blog, the fact that MPs are now going to be given a free vote won’t actually make any difference to the eventual outcome as most MPs are going to support this measure.

Hence writing “They. Must. Be. Stopped” as if “they” were on the brink of taking over the known universe is over-stating the threat somewhat.

Basically, what Rob said, at #3.

It seems to me that this turns on how one reads the clause. On my reading, it says that ‘abnormal’ embryos must not be preferred to ‘normal’ ones. It’s specifically not saying we should seek and destroy abnormal ones; nor even that we should prefer ‘normal’ ones to ‘abnormal’ ones. Only that where a ‘choice’ develops, we don’t prefer the one that’s likely to develop a disability.

The only way I can see allowing the selection of the deaf embryo to be reasonable from a liberal point of view is if you don’t define deafness as a disability. To me, that’s not credible.

As an aside, the bill is anyway unlikely to result in cultural genocide for the deaf. Most will be born naturally, without IVF, and therefore without embryo selection ever being an issue.

They clearly don’t feel that children who grow up to be deaf should never be allowed to enter the world in the first place.

Who does?!

What’s wrong with that. the current situation itself is actually genetic selection, where any embryo with ‘abnormalities’ are discarded.
I’m frankly appalled that people are trying to make out that its deaf people who want to ‘engineer’ deaf kids or something.

In fact, some deaf people do want to be able to deliberately select for deafness.

Now, the legislation we’re talking about says:

Persons or embryos that are known to have a gene, chromosome or mitochondrion abnormality involving a significant risk that a person with the abnormality will have or develop—
(a) a serious physical or mental disability,
(b) a serious illness, or
(c) any other serious medical condition, must not be preferred to those that are not known to have such an abnormality.

The explanatory notes say:

New sections 13(8) to (11) amend the 1990 Act to make it a condition of a treatment licence that embryos that are known to have an abnormality (including a gender-related abnormality) are not to be preferred to embryos not known to have such an abnormality. The same restriction is also applied to the selection of persons as gamete or embryo donors. Outside the UK, the positive selection of deaf donors in order deliberately to result in a deaf child has been reported. This provision would prevent selection for a similar purpose.

Of course, ‘serious’ has yet to be formally defined, but the Explanatory Notes seem to make clear that deafness is ‘serious’, and that the Bill would prevent selection for it.

Assuming this is correct, you cannot deliberately select for deafness. On the other hand you can deliberately select for hearing. You could also, it seems to me, randomly pick an embryo, taking your chances. The media says deaf embryos will automatically be discarded – well, that’s not what the legislation seems to say. I don’t know what happens in practice.

Hi Paul,

Well, my disagreement is with the militant god squad, not the normal types. I think Simon Barrow’s piece the other day sums this up well:
http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2008/03/24/manipulating-politics-through-religion/

If the church is trying to frame the debate in the form of ‘frankenstein babies’ etc, why shouldn’t we call them nutjobs in return? I agree it doesn’t actually lead to a very productive argument but I don’t see why they should automatically deserve respect for such outrageous comments. Of course, if it was some mad mullah saying it I wouldn’t hold back either.

I really struggle to understand how you can defend the use of the parliamentary whipping system on an issue such as this.

I’m not opposed to allowing MPs free votes more, and I would love that on the 42 days legislation for example. But in this case the govt backtracked not because its committed to free votes in principle but because the Catholic lobby is trying to distort the debate and tried to held Brown hostage. That is what i’m opposed to.

the fact that MPs are now going to be given a free vote won’t actually make any difference to the eventual outcome

Well, its very likely, yes. But there is a danger this debate further gets framed by the Catholic church and that the progressive update of abortion laws and on embryology doesn’t happen.

I don’t want to just see the status quo. I’d like to be more progressive here. By simply fighting for the status quo in my view is a defeat on the issue anyway.


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  1. Voulez Vous Couchez Avec Moi, Ce Soir?: Westminster Watch: w/b 24th March 2008 | The Wardman Wire

    […] row over the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill continues apace, with the massed ranks of the Labour God-squad causing a massive headache for the Government Whips’ office. Fearing a rebellion over what […]





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