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British Parliament does us proud

The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill passed resoundingly yesterday, paving the way for improved genetic research

Despite the attacks of the God-botherers, who tried to sneak in a cut in the abortion limit under the wire of the embryology bill, Parliament saw sense on every count yesterday.

* The abortion limit remains at 24 weeks, despite attempts by right-wingers to cut it to 20 or even 12.

* Lesbian couples and single mothers need not now take the 'father's' view into account when seeking IVF.

* Embryos may be produced by implanting human DNA into animal eggs to produce hybrid embryos that can be used for stem cell research.

* And parents may choose a specific embryo to tissue-match a new baby to an existing child who has certain genetic disorders.

The whole thing was a triumph for reason and science over religion and knee-jerk emotion.

The move to cut the time limit on abortion had virtually no support in the UK outside religious pressure groups and the right-wing tabloid press. The population did not want a change, according to polls; the medical evidence was heavily against it since very few foetuses survive under 24 weeks (some 40 per cent die shortly after birth and the remainder are mostly very handicapped); the Health Minister Dawn Primarolo was in favour of keeping the limit at 24 weeks; and so were both heads of the major parties. Parliament was given a free vote so that Catholics and other religious minorities could vote according to conscience, but thankfully the move to cut the limit was defeated by around two to one.

In the UK, it should be noted, nearly 90 per cent of abortions take place within 12 weeks in any case - this, in spite of the fact that abortion on demand does not actually exist in the UK (which it does here in France). In the UK, a pregnant woman still has to prove that the birth would be detrimental to her physical or emotional health, or that the foetus would be handicapped, and obtain the consent of two doctors - in this regard the country lags far behind most other countries in Europe but luckily there are moves afoot to liberalise the legislation.

Furthermore, in the UK 68 per cent of abortions take place very early - inside nine weeks and only one per cent of abortions take place after 22 weeks. The 'problem' of the 'epidemic' of late-term abortion simply doesn't exist. It was not an issue that needed to be dealt with.

Many women do not know, incidentally, that around one in three women has an abortion during her lifetime, and that in the UK at least, as many abortions are carried out on women over the age of 50 as there are on girls under 16. We would do well remember in our steady middle age that it is not all irresponsible teenagers who end up in the club after a night on the tiles, but pre-menopausal and menopausal women who take their eye off the ball because we think we're past it.

The Bill's side-issues of 'Frankenstein siblings' and rabid lesbians jamming the IVF clinics to have fatherless babies were thankfully simply kicked into touch. What utter bollocks all this was. The British public, a libertarian lot, don't really give a stuff about who shags whom, as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses, and if lesbians want to be parents, better good lesbians than bad heterosexuals - there are plenty of those about, after all.

The major portion of the embryology bill, however, is a real breakthrough for science, and in the absence of human eggs to experiment on should hopefully furnish our researchers with usable stem cells long into the future. The embryos will be destroyed after 14 days, just as with human embryos. The move brings the prospect of a cure for some terrible diseases much closer, including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, spinal atrophy, Parkinson's and Huntingdon's Chorea (which killed my great-aunt and is currently killing one of my cousins).

In tandem, scientists will pursue the possibililty of adult-generated stem cells. Although the substantial reverse-engineering required for this currently renders the results too unreliable to use, it does at least lack any controversy at all, unlike the hybrid embryos, the prospect of which seems to make some people very queasy.

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