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BATTLE lines are being drawn between the religious right and the pro-choice left in preparation for a controversial Bill set to change the face of abortion and stem cell research.

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe and Lord David Alton threw down the gauntlet in Southampton this week to urge pro-life supporters to rail against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill before it became law.

Addressing a packed Turner Sims Concert Hall at Southampton University, speakers lampooned proposals to create animal human hybrids by using animal eggs to house human DNA and plans to remove father's names from the birth certificates of IVF children.

But principally underlying it all was the abortion debate.

The Bill opens possibilities for change in abortion laws allowing religious groups to push for a reduction in terminations while pro-choice campaigners lobby for women, not doctors, to decide on ending a pregnancy.

Lord Alton warned against people being on the fence or "living in a spiritual Switzerland" while other MPs looked to use GP surgeries for abortions.

The Passion for Life Tour visits eight cities in a bid to mobilise the masses. Both politicians want a lowering of the upper limit of abortions from 24 to 21 weeks and to stop pro-choice activists pushing for midwives and nurses to be left in charge of terminations instead of doctors.

Miss Widdecombe said: "Babies are born prematurely and survive at 21 weeks. If you are born you have full civil rights, full equality before the law. You will have all the resources of medical science to keep you alive. It would be a criminal offence to kill you. But just before birth when you are the same person you have no civil rights at all and you can be taken from the womb and destroyed. There's only one difference. You can see one and you can't see the other. You can do to the other what would be unspeakable to a child already born."

She told the Daily Echo people were running out of time to stop the Bill, that in a few weeks it would be before the Commons and become law.

She said: "We need to mobilise the nation. We need a great many people in a short space of time. Enough people have to contact enough MPs to make a difference to the outcome or it will go through before anybody notices."

Pro-choice group Abortion Rights encourages women to picket the tour as they did in the rally's first stop in Glasgow.

Spokesman, Laura Woodhouse, said: "A minority of women do require abortions later into pregnancy. These women are often particularly vulnerable: young women and girls who may not have regular periods and so are unaware they are pregnant, or who are afraid to ask for an abortion, women who have been raped, and women who suffer violence at the hands of partners. Reducing the abortion time limit would cause unnecessary suffering to these women.

"If Widdecombe wants to ensure that abortions are carried out earlier, she should campaign to remove the law which states that a woman must gain the permission of two doctors. This, along with NHS waiting lists, can cause considerable delay in women accessing abortion, forcing them to have the procedure at a later date."

Embryonic stem cell research came under fire for failing to produce any results in 20 years of experimenting.

There are two types of stem cells embryonic and adult. Passion for Life argued that only adult stem cells should be harvested because no harm is done removing cells from adults whereas embryos are destroyed after use.

On the other hand, scientists claim there is no harm using discarded embryos from IVF clinics.

Southampton University professor, Andrew Lotery, who is involved in vision research using adult stem cells, defended the work as potentially life-saving for millions living with incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

He said: "We don't know for definite what type of stem cells are going to ultimately prove to be the best in terms of improving health and treating untreatable conditions. I think it's early days for both types. Probably the most success has been with bone marrow transplants.

"Ethically it is a lot easier to use adult stem cells. If there are embryo stem cells that are being wasted for example with abortions or IVF - it is better to put them to use rather than destroy them but I do not think we should be making embryos for research.

"The embryo has the potential to go on to be a human being and I do not think ethically it would be right to create an embryo. An embryo should have human rights. Life should not be brought into being for experimentation."

At Wessex Fertility Clinic in Southampton couples can give up embryos unsuitable for freezing to research instead of leaving them to perish.

Embryologist Amani Rakha explained that such donations furthered IVF exploration as well as stem cell research because fertility doctors were told which embryos survived beyond a few days.

She said: "Not all embryos have the potential to go to day five. To send the spare ones for research we can know which ones are the good ones and we can secure them for future use. It gives us an idea what to look for in a good embryo."

As the HFE bill enters the House of Commons in the coming weeks, both sides are making compelling cases to sway public opinion.

Whether it is to strive for life-saving cures or to protect the dignity of human life, religion and science will battle it out once more agreeing only that there is absolutely no room on the fence.


  • (Evangelical Alliance)
  • (Christian Medical Fellowship)
  • (Lawyers Christian Fellowship)