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Did Secularism Win Out

Did Secularism Win Out

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Published by Steven Kettell
This paper charts the passage of the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the U.K. It argues that the main feature of the Bill's passing was not that this constituted a success for secularism, but that it highlighted the increasing desire on the part of the religiously motivated to secure a greater role for faith in the public sphere.
This paper charts the passage of the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the U.K. It argues that the main feature of the Bill's passing was not that this constituted a success for secularism, but that it highlighted the increasing desire on the part of the religiously motivated to secure a greater role for faith in the public sphere.

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Published by: Steven Kettell on Dec 12, 2009
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Did Secularism Win Out?The Debate over the Human Fertilisationand Embryology Bill
The divide
between secularism and faithis no more evident than in matters of science and religion. In the latest clash between the two, the debate over thecontroversial Human Fertilisation andEmbryology Bill has again raised ques-tions about the extent to which religious belief should inform and shape publicpolicy in Britain. In this instance, a brief review of the legislative outcome wouldseem to indicate a victory for secularism,as religiously motivated attempts toamend the Bill's key provisions weresoundly defeated during the course of its passage through Parliament. Yet thereare good reasons to believe that drawingsucha conclusionwouldbetoo hasty.Forone, although the composition of thedebate over the Bill was for the mostpart polarised between secular and reli-gious opinion, not all of those whoopposed its more contentious aspectsdid so for religious reasons. Moreover, asecond, and less obvious point concernsthe way in which the religious lobbysought to shape the terms of the debateitself. Despite losing the Parliamentaryvotes by a large margin, the manner inwhich religiously motivated groups andindividuals engaged in the broader pub-lic debate suggests a level of organisationand mobilisation that is unlikely to sim-ply fade away. Indeed, what the debateover the Human Fertilisation and Embry-ology Bill reveals most is not so much thedominance of a homogeneous secular-ism, as a growing willingness on thepart of those driven by religious belief to seek a greater role for their faith in thepublic sphere.
An act of science
While the process of secularisation inBritain continues its seemingly unrelent-ing progress,
questions about the role of religion in the public sphere remain mat-ters of intense contention. A series of high-pro®le disputes over issues includ-ing free speech, the establishment of faithschools, the terms of sexual equality leg-islation and issues of identity and com-munity cohesion, have all, in variousways, served to emphasise the point.With questions about the social and polit-ical role of faith appearing ever moreoftenonthecontemporarypublicagenda,so pressures for religion to be granted agreater in¯uence in public aairs havealso gained momentum. Often, this has been couched by its adherents as a rear-guard action in the face of a vigorouslyassertive secularist lobby. The head of theCatholic Church in England and Wales,Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, forexample, has recently implored againstallowing the rising tide of secularism toturn Britain into a `God free zone'Ðsenti-mentsthathavebeenechoedbytheArch- bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams,who has persistently warned that thestate will become `sterile and oppressive. . . unless it is continually engaged in
The Author 2009. Journal compilation
The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2009Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
The Political Quarterly
, Vol. 80, No. 1, January±March 2009
conversation with those who speak forthe gospel'. The case has also been put bya variety of multidenominational faithgroups and organisations. Among them,Theos, a self-declared `public theologythink-tank' makes the point with particu-lar clarity; promoting an `overall aim of putting God ``back'' into the publicdomain'.
The recent Human Fertilisation andEmbryology Bill provided fertile groundfor the latest public confrontation between the secular and the religious.The Bill, which cleared Parliament inOctober 2008, is the latest in a series of legislative measures designed to main-tain a regulatory and statutory frame-work for the conduct of research intohumanembryos. Thedebateoverthe®rstof these measuresÐthe 1990 Human Fer-tilisation and Embryology Acwasmarked by two competing forms of dis-course, described by Mulkay as a dichot-omy between a rhetoric of `hope',deployed by its supporters who soughtto emphasise the potential medical andreproductivebene®tsof embryoresearch,versus a rhetoric of `fear', through whichits opponents emphasised the adversemoral and social implications of unrest-rained scientc advances. Primarilymobilised by religiously motivated indi-viduals and organisations, this latter dis-course centred on the `special status' of ahuman embryo as an actual or potentiallife, and on the ethical transgression in-volved in any research that led to itsdestruction. During the course of events,however, the former discourse proved to be the more in¯uential. Supporters of theBill successfully managed to shape thedebate in their favour through a cam-paign of practically demonstrating thescience of IVF treatment to MPs, and byutilising the concept of a `pre-embryo',de®ned as the ®rst 14 days from fertilisa-tion prior to the emergence of the `primit-ive streak' (the point at which the cellsthatmakeuptheuniquecharacteristicsof the embryo become dierentiated),which could legitimately be denied per-sonhood status and thereby made it pos-sible for MPs to reconcile embryologicalresearch with convictions relating to themoral status of the unborn. The Bill waseventually passed on a free vote in theHouse of Commons (by 362 to 189), giv-ing Britain one of the most liberalisedhuman embryo research regimes in theworld.
By the turn of the century, a series of scienti®c breakthroughs in cloning andstem cell technologies had created pres-sures for the 1990 Act to be updated so asto permit research in these areas, espe-cially into potential treatments for degen-erative diseases such as Alzheimer's andParkinson's. In December 2000 the Actwas subsequently amended on anotherfree vote, with the debate once morehinging on the moral claims of humanembryos versus the medical bene®ts of embryonic research.
By 2004, however,with a growing sense of unease about thecapacity of the regulatory framework tokeep abreast of scienti®c developments,the government announced its intentionto review the 1990 Act. This was followed by a public consultation in 2005, a WhitePaper in December 2006 and subse-quently by a draft Bill, which was scruti-nised by a Joint Committee drawn from both the House of Lords and the Com-mons. The Bill was introduced in theformer in November 2007, replete withwhipped voting as the governmentsought to ensure that any attempts toamend its contents met with failure.Having cleared the initial stage in theLords, the Bill's passage through theCommons was a source of no little con-troversy. This was due as much to thegovernment's handling of the Bill as to itsactual contents. In particular, the inten-tion to subject the Bill to a further roundof whipped voting jarred with manyLabour MPs, who regarded certainaspects of it as matters of conscienceÐagrievance heightened by the free votesthat were allowed by the Conservatives
Steven Kettell
The Political Quarterly
, Vol. 80, No. 1
The Author 2009. Journal compilation
The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2009
and the Liberal Democrats. The threemost notable of these were measures forthe creation of human-animal hybridembryos for research purposes (designedto circumvent a shortage of human eggs by inserting a human nucleus into ananimal casing); for permitting the selec-tion of embryos for the purposes of creat-inga `savioursibling'(screeningembryosfor a tissue match for an existing illsibling who might bene®t from a dona-tion of stem cells); and for the removal of a clause stipulating the `need for a father'for the provision of IVF treatment. Add-ing further to the pressure for a free vote,opponents of the Bill also declared theirintention to table an amendment on low-ering the time limit for abortion from itscurrent level of 24 weeksÐthe ®rst timethat any change in the 1967 Act wouldhave been considered in 18 years.Amidst concerns about a Cabinet rift,with Catholic ministers Paul Murphy,Ruth Kelly and Des Browne (along withseveral whips and junior ministers) believed to be willing to defy the govern-ment line in order to vote according totheir consciences, by the end of March,Prime Minister Gordon Brown had beenforced to relent. Under the terms of acompromise agreement, Labour MPswere to be permitted to vote accordingto their consciences on these particularprovisions on condition that they sup-ported (or at least did not vote against)the government when it came to the ®nalvote in the House of Commons.
Taking sides
For many commentators, the Human Fer-tilisation and Embryology Bill invoked aclearlydemarcatedbattleground,rangingthose in favour of science and rationalityagainst the reactionary forces of faith. Inthe view of the former, the story of thepublic debate was one of `godly interven-tionists' seeking to block the eorts of progress; of, as Richard Dawkins put it,`restless busybodies' who `can't resistin¯icting their ignorant opinions onothers'. In the view of the latter, on theother hand, science had now become, inthe words of Comment on ReproductiveEthics (CORE), `the new fundamentalism. . . particularly in the ®eld of embryonicstem cells'. Or, as Tom Wright, the Angli-can Bishop of Durham, put it, the Bill wasmerely the latest thrust from a `militantlyatheist and secularist lobby', the expres-sion of its `tyrannical' belief in the right to`kill unborn children and surplus oldpeople'.
Given such a clear and appar-ently irreconcilable divide, the Bill's pas-sage through Parliament, in which allattempts to modify or remove its mostcontentious points failed, would thusseem to indicate a victory for secularismover religion. To what extent, then, is thisactually the case?The degree to which any reasonableinferences can be drawn on this matterdependsonthecompositionofthedebate.Simply put, if the vast majority of thoseopposed to the measures contained in theBillwerereligiouslydriven,andifthevastmajority of those in favour were overtlysecular, then this will provide reasonablegrounds for claiming that the passing of the measures indeed signi®ed a secularistvictory. The real picture, however, wasnot quite so clear cut. This is evidenced,®rstly, by an analysis of the replies givento the 2005 public consultation exercise.These are categorised here as `secular'(beingfromorganisationswithnoovertlyreligious orientation), `religious' (fromorganisations explicitly identifying them-selves as religious, and individuals repre-senting religious organisations, such aschurch leaders) and `other' (from thosewhose religious or secular position waseither unstated or unclear). Three of theeventual four `issues of conscience' onwhich MPs were permitted a free votewere addressed in the consultation ques-tionnaire (the use of hybrid embryos,tissue typing for the creation of `savioursiblings' and the `need for a father'clause), and while the relatively small
The Debate over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill
The Author 2009. Journal compilation
The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2009
The Political Quarterly
, Vol. 80, No. 1

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