The backlash from senior religious figures against the human fertilisation and embryology Bill before parliament should not be allowed to obscure their medieval, anti-science viewpoint on the one hand and the government’s close connection with biotech corporations on the other.
Cardinals and bishops throughout the land used Easter to launch ferocious attacks on the government for refusing – so far - to allow a “free vote” in the Commons. Cardinal O'Brien, Scotland's most senior Catholic cleric denounced what he called "Frankenstein" experiments and called the Bill’s proposals a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life". The Church of England joined the fray in the form of Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. He saw fit to denounce the government for “pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby”.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, has called for Labour MPs to be granted a free vote, saying: "I think Catholics in politics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions, so have other Christians, so have other politicians.” Three Catholic cabinet ministers are taking their cue from the Pope’s man in Britain - Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly (a member of the highly secret, far-right Opus Dei sect) and Defence Secretary Des Brown – and are threatening to leave the government.
They oppose the Bill because it allows the use of cloned embryos in the very early moments after fertilisation, which they claim is a form of murder. The Catholic Church’s opposes abortion on similar grounds. In fact, the use of stem-cell therapies, which is what the tiny balls of cells (which in no-way can be called human beings) are used for, has already been proved beneficial in treating Parkinson’s disease. The Catholic Church and other opponents of scientific knowledge want to cash in, as always, on people’s fears and ignorance of the hidden processes by which a human being arises from just those clumps of cells.
There is an entirely justified fear and distrust of another unholy and hidden alliance – that between politicians of all parties and the global corporations whose interests dominate scientific and medical research of all kinds. Brown’s main concern is that biotech corporations will be left behind by their competitors if the Bill doesn’t go through. How they steal an advantage is another thing. Only recently GlaxoSmithKline was forced to admit that it had covered up the fatal effects of Prozac on young people by refusing to place internal research in the public domain.
The secrecy surrounding patents of new medicines, the use of wide swathes of the population as guinea pigs for new drugs, the premature prescribing of new products due to pressures from corporations on the medical profession – in short, the wholesale entry of market forces into the National Health Service have all contributed to fears of unchecked experimentation.
In our book, A World to Win, we document the way in which the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is dominated by commercial interests, in particular companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Astra-Zenica, Unilever and United Biscuits.
At present, the choice is between leaving the questions of scientific research to a toothless parliament in hock to corporate interests, who will secretly experiment on people, or endure new forms of moral intolerance and anti-science, parading under the banner of “freedom of conscience”. There has to be another way. The row over this Bill shows the urgent need for a science that is financed and controlled with the interests of society as a whole at the centre of research rather than the balance sheets of Big Pharma.