UK to legalise ‘three-parent babies’
Catherine Ravenscroft, Durham University
The UK is poised to become the first country in the world to legalise the creation of IVF embryos via so called ‘three-parent babies’. This IVF procedure involves the combination of genetic material from two different egg cells, with the aim of preventing the transmission of mitochondrial diseases. Such diseases are caused by defective mitochondria in the eggs of the mother and it is suggested that by replacing these with the mitochondria of a healthy donor egg these conditions could be eradicated.
However the new procedure is not welcomed by all. Professor Evan Snyder, chair of the scientific panel advising the US Food and Drug Administration on mitochondrial transfer, insists it still too early to legalise. While conceding the need for eradication of these diseases, he contends the treatment should not be allowed until extra research is completed. This is because, he says, “we don’t know whether these changes will be passed on to future generations.”
Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, has also expressed concern that the procedure could lead to “developmental or physiological malfunctions”. Such things are already symptoms of the diseases which this treatment seeks to prevent. Any such side effects would, therefore, be detrimental to the aim behind any legislation by Parliament.
On the other hand Professors Robin Lovell-Badge and Peter Braude, who sit on the panel advising the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, say the benefits of the treatment are likely to outweigh the risks. This is because “there are no alternatives” which allow couples with mitochondrial mutations to have genetically related children free of the diseases.
Nevertheless, the question of where the balance between potential benefits and potential harms is not one that can necessarily be answered until after further testing or use in practice. As legislation is expected to be laid before Parliament within the next few weeks, and a vote due in January, it appears that time is what researchers do not have. It might, therefore, be wise for Parliament to err on the side of safety when asked to legalise this practice.
Northern Ireland consultation on abortion law reform
Lily Malcolm-Watts, Durham University
Last month a public consultation was launched in Northern Ireland to review the abortion laws in 2 areas – when pregnancy is a result of rape, and when the foetus has a fatal abnormality (i.e. will not be able to survive after birth). Currently, neither circumstance provides grounds for an abortion in Northern Ireland.
The current law in Northern Ireland restricts abortion to cases in which there is a permanent or serious risk to a woman’s mental or physical health. The reality is that this denies abortion in almost all cases, resulting in women resorting to unsafe techniques to end the pregnancy, or travelling elsewhere – often to England – to obtain an abortion.
The fact that the public consultation will only touch upon 2 very restricted areas of the abortion laws is extremely unfortunate. Justice Minister David Ford has been quoted as saying “It is not about the wider issues of abortion law, often labeled ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’. It is about considering legislative changes in two specific sets of circumstances.” The attitudes of many in the NI government remain staunchly pro-life, for example the newly appointed Health Minister, Jim Wells, who opposes abortion for victims of rape, saying “should the ultimate victim of that terrible act [rape] – which is the unborn child – should he or she also be punished for what has happened by having their life terminated? No.” This could potentially be a serious bar to progress – despite the fact that a survey by Amnesty International as part of their ‘My Body, My Rights’ campaign has shown that 70% of people in Northern Ireland believe abortion should be more easily obtainable, the strong pro-life faction in government may block all attempts to reform the currently draconian measures.
Let’s hope that the public consultation, due to be published in January 2015, will reflect the fact that the law in Northern Ireland must change, or women who need abortions will continue to be at risk.
Julien Blanc Denied Visa
Charlotte Adamson, Durham University
Last week Julien Blanc, the controversial ‘dating guru’, was barred from entering the UK by the Home Office following a petition that attracted more than 150,000 signatures. He also had to cut short a recent tour of Australia because his visa was cancelled following protests there.
Julien Blanc is a “pick-up artist” who works for the LA based company Real Social Dynamics, travelling the word telling men how to seduce “any woman they want”. However, his methods have been criticised as sexually abusive and essentially teaching men how to coerce women into sex. In one video, he advises men to come up with multiple excuses to get girls closer to where they are staying, and to think about how they are going to “get her into bed” and “get her clothes off”. In another video he can be heard telling a group of men, “In Tokyo, if you’re a white male, you can do what you want. I’m just romping through the streets, just grabbing girls’ heads, just like, head, pffft on the dick”, and he has also been seen grabbing the necks of various women and forcing their faces towards his crotch.
The Home Secretary has the power to exclude an individual if she considers his or her presence in the UK is “not conducive to the public good”. While it is positive that a petition against a man who stands for an essentially misogynistic business has been widely supported, this is not a case of ‘problem solved’. The issue is wider than just the individual; the fact that there are markets for such events demonstrates that there is still a substantial problem in society.
In the US, tickets can be sold for one of Blanc’s seminars for up to $3000; people are paying and going back. As Alison Phipps, a senior lecturer and director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, notes, it would be preferable if no one attended Blanc’s seminars in the first place, and we need to focus on why they do to prevent the need for another petition against another ‘Julien Blanc’.
The Ched Evans row: an insight into contemporary views on rape?
Oriana Frame, Durham University
In the face of a public reaction that they have described as ‘at an intensity that could not have been anticipated’, Sheffield United has withdrawn its offer to allow Ched Evans to train at the club. Evans, who maintains his innocence, was convicted of rape in 2012 and was released in October of this year after serving half of his five year sentence. The club’s controversial decision to allow Evans to return to training has evoked a larger debate that has attempted to reconcile the restorative aims of the British legal system, and the right of an offender to be reintegrated into society, with the extremely delicate nature of rape cases.
However what has proved crucial in differentiating this case; is that it is not simply an instance of frustrating an offender who wishes to contribute to society through employment. Here, there is the added dimension that football players undeniably enjoy a position of extreme privilege in modern society. And so the question for many has become: ‘how appropriate it is for a convicted rapist to be elevated back to a position where he would be celebrated as role model’?
In addressing this question the Evans case has not only highlighted the need for the multi-million pound, self-regulating, football industry to start taking responsibility for the type of role models it is producing, but has also acted as a reminder of the continuing divide in contemporary attitude towards rape and sexual violence.
A comment made by BBC Radio Norfolk’s presenter Nick Conrad, while participating in an open debate, is to give a brief example: ‘if you don’t wish to give the wrong signals it’s best probably to keep your knickers on’. Although Conrad has subsequently apologised, the comment is just one example of a wider, casual tendency towards victim blaming in relation to rape. Such comments deny the reality that, in fact, rape is not inevitability. It is not a matter of individual female’s inadvertently provoking a predisposition within all men.
Similarly indicative, were the rape threats that were sent via Twitter to Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill after she expressed the view that if Evans was to return to the club full time; she no longer wished to be associated with the stand that is in her name there. That even she, a ‘national treasure’, can be subjected to such vulgar abuse in defence of Evans highlights the reality that prejudice against women in relation to sexual violence still very much exists.
These brief examples of such comments show that the attitude towards sexual violence remains an issue that must continue to be addressed. However, the fact that Sheffield United finally look to have recognised the inappropriateness of their original decision, influenced by such commendable public debate and outcry, is promising.
Church of England to Allow Women Bishops
Tammie Chung, Durham University
For centuries, the Church has been dominated by males. The fight for women to take up senior roles in the Church of England has been a long one, but it seems that significant change is on the horizon. The Church has formally adopted a legislative amendment at the general synod that states, “A man or a woman may be consecrated to the office of bishop.” This will most likely begin to take effect early next year, when new bishops are due to be appointed. There are talks of implementing a scheme by which positive discrimination could be used to increase the number of female bishops in diocese, but this is extremely controversial and has already been met with criticism.
This is a significant step forward for the Church of England, but by no means is it a new concept. Outside of the Church of England, there are approximately 25 active female bishops in the world. The legislation in the Church of England was first proposed in 2012, and failed to make it through the House of Laity. This time around, the amendment was passed, and many believe it is due to the inclusion of the use of an ombudsman to settle disputes. It will be interesting to see how this new amendment will play out when new bishops are appointed, as well as the impact it will have globally. While it was not the first to allow for women bishops, the Church of England is still an important institution, and it will be intriguing to see if it can set an example for other Anglican Churches around the world.
Sarkozy proposes repeal of France’s same-sex marriage law
Sarah Thin, Durham University
The passing of the ‘Taubira law’ (introduced by and named after Christine Taubira, the French Justice Minister) in May 2013 made France the 9th country in Europe and the 14th in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. This month, at a meeting organised by the right-wing group ‘Sens Commun’ (‘common sense’), Nicholas Sarkozy (ex-president and likely future presidential candidate) called for repeal of the Taubira law in favour of a new law introducing a two-tiered system whereby homosexual couples may have access to a form of union but one distinct from traditional marriage. He was met with applause from the 3,000-strong audience. This would seem to be a dark day for those with hopes of a more liberal France.
Outside that venue, however, he has been met with a great deal of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Pierre Laurent, a member of the French Communist Party has denounced Sarkozy (in English) as a ‘coming out homophobe’; Manuel Valls, the current Prime Minister, has accused him of being incoherent and pandering to the crowd; many members of his own party have come out against repeal. Sarkozy seems far removed from public opinion as well: on the same day that his comments were made, a poll was published which revealed that 68% of people in France support same-sex marriage and 53% support adoption by same-sex couples.
Most now seem to be treating Sarkozy’s comments as a poorly-thought-out political manoeuvre. A poll by Le Parisien newspaper found that 70.9% of respondents did not believe that Sarkozy, if he returns to power, would actually carry out his threat to repeal the Taubira law. This is promising, but we must not forget the cries of “Abrogation! Abrogation!” (“Repeal! Repeal!”) that rang out at that meeting. If nothing else, these recent events have reminded us that the fight for equal rights is far from over.
Conservative MP calls for blood donation reform
Alex Maine, Newcastle University
The historic ban on the donation of blood by men who have sex with men (MSM) is to be challenged in Parliament by Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant. The backbencher has stated that “the present position is illogical, unfair, and untenable” and intends to pass a Bill removing barriers that obstruct any man who has had sexual intercourse with another man in the past 12 months from donating blood. This has historically been based on the recurring effects of the 1980s AIDs epidemic, which has affected thousands of the gay community. The National Blood Service advocates this position as a means of protecting the general public from the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases, even if the individual tests negative for HIV.
However, this serves to demonstrate a discriminatory and biased stance, a way of emphasising heteronormative morality over the protection of health. All blood donated to the Service is rigorously tested for any blood-borne diseases, all of which are equally as likely to be carried by heterosexual people, while is it critical to note that 42% of all 2013 UK HIV diagnoses were heterosexual. Fabricant argues that if gay men were required to be tested beforehand, so should straight people. This discriminatory law means that a huge amount of healthy, life-saving blood is restricted from use. A recent survey by Dazed magazine found that of its 10,000 heterosexual and homosexual participants, half of all gay men use a condom at all times during sexual intercourse.
Despite this, there has recently been a recent rise in the number of HIV diagnoses among homosexual men, notably that 1 in 10 gay men in London, and 1 in 8 in Brighton have HIV. This statistical minority may reinforce the government’s position purely in order to save time testing all blood samples. This rise in diagnoses may also be representative of the fact there is no formal sexual education that directly aims to educate people on same-sex sexual relationships. This may be the reason that there is a historic disparity between the rates of HIV and AIDs in gay people and straight people. It is through this that discriminatory laws have been passed and perpetuate the myth that homosexuality in itself is a disease. These entrenched discriminatory factors culminate in the likelihood that Fabricant’s Bill will not be successful.