A week in which the Roman Catholic bishops caused less of a stir with their pastoral letter than the Anglicans had, abortion law was left untouched, but mitochondrial donation was approved…
On Monday the Commons rejected a cross-party bid to clarify in law that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal in the UK. An amendment by Fiona Bruce, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, to the Serious Crime Bill to that effect [new clause 1] was defeated by 292 to 201; but an amendment to provide for a review of the extent of gender selection abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland [new clause 25] was agreed to by 491 to 2. The wording of the defeated amendment is significant, in that in relation to the termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child, it would have provided that:
‘Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.’
The chair of the Commons Select Committee on Health, Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con) suggested that the new clause 1 would have unintended consequences, in that the use of the “very emotive term, ‘the unborn child’ … would change the meaning within the Abortion Act”, 23 Feb 2015 Vol 593(111) Col 129. Whilst the Act uses the word “child” the context of circumstances after its birth, section 1(1)(d), “it does not confer personhood on the foetus in the way that this change would.” However, she urged hon. Members to revisit this issue “and give it the time it deserves. Let us debate it on its ethical merits, not try to pretend that we are talking about something else.”
Mitochondrial donation in UK law
Following the four-hour debate, much of it concerned with Lord Deben’s unsuccessful “wrecking amendment”, the two procedures in the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 are now part of UK law. As the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, (HFEA) pointed out, this does not lead directly to such treatments being offered: mitochondrial donation now becomes part of the regulatory scheme set out in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act and administered by the HFEA, which must now assess that: any clinic that wished to offer mitochondrial donation is competent to offer it; and each case of treatment is appropriate, using criteria set out in the Regulations. At present, only one research team in the UK is likely to be in a position to offer it to patients in the near future.
Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill progress
In the absence of debate at the Committee stage, we and a number of other commentators overlooked the fact that on 26 February the House of Lords had discharged the order of commitment, HL Hansard 26 Feb 2015 Vol 759(018) Col 1766, because no amendments had been tabled and that no-one had indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. The Report stage of the Bill in the House of Lords will be on Thursday, 12 March. The Bill appears to be on schedule for receiving Royal Assent before this Parliament is dissolved at the end of March.
The Lords Spiritual (Male) have been active in the Upper House this week, and the Church of England in Parliament site summarizes their activities.
Opposite-sex civil partnerships?
Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld announced that Laing J had granted them permission to proceed with their petition for judicial review of the Government’s refusal to open up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. They have also been granted a Protective Costs Order to limit their liability for the other side’s costs in the event that they lose. We shall be following their case with great interest. Huffington Post carries an interesting piece by Richard Adams on the case for opposite-sex civil partnerships.
Islam and human rights
Islam was in the news for all sorts of reasons, but there were two items that may be of particular interest to readers.
In Karaahmed v Bulgaria  ECHR 217 the Court held that violent demonstrations in 2011 outside the Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia and the Bulgarian authorities’ utterly pusillanimous response had violated Article 3 (inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 9 (thought, conscience and religion) ECHR.
Coming next, in all probability, will be a challenge to the latest Austrian legislation on Islam. The new law will protect Muslim religious holidays and provide state-funded training for imams which will be obligatory for Islamic chaplains in prisons and the armed forces. But it will also ban foreign funding for mosques; and according to Soeren Kern, of the Gatestone Institute, “60 of the 300 Muslim clerics working in Austria are Turkish civil servants whose salaries are being paid for by the Turkish government’s Religious Affairs Directorate”. Moreover, the legislation leaves Christians and Jews unaffected; and Thomas Schmidinger, a Vienna University specialist in political Islam, points out that the Russian Orthodox Church will continue to receive funding from Russia. There is also a question-mark about what constitutes “foreign funding” anyway: does it include funding from other countries within the EU?
Some of the reactions have been extremely critical – especially from Turkey. But the biggest question of all is how it will play in Strasbourg if and when the ECtHR is asked to consider it. Given the recent trend in Strasbourg not to interfere with the domestic decisions of states parties on Article 9 issues, the likelihood must be that the Court would regard it as within Austria’s margin of appreciation. But we’ll no doubt find out in due course.
Protection of charities
The Joint Committee of Lords and Commons published its Report on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill. Perhaps its most striking recommendation was that excepted and exempted status should be ended. Not only would that have a considerable immediate impact on Churches and church charities in England and Wales – the vast majority of which are currently excepted from registration with the Charity Commission unless their income exceeds £100,000 – but a premature end to excepted status would be a nightmare for the Commission itself: it can barely cope with its existing workload.
- Dr Ed Peters: In his post How null is this marriage? Let me count the ways he assesses the canonical position of a priest who undergoes a civil marriage as “null and nuller”.
- Dr Ed Peters: It was worse than a crime—it was a blunder. On the credible reports that Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, head of the secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, ordered the confiscation of material legally mailed to synod participants last October that defended the traditional Roman Catholic position that those who have been divorced and civilly remarried cannot receive Holy Communion. Further comment on #Synodgate from Fr Z.
- Director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ: Clarification of the Pope’s use of the expression “avoid ‘Mexicanisation” (in a private and informal email to an Argentine friend).
Following David P’s post Bishops’ Pastoral Statement: 2015 General Election, we were surprised to see a link in the Friday CofE Daily Digest to Pocklington Post: Should churches and politics mix? However, this is not a rebadging of the article but a news item in an East Yorkshire tabloid by the Revd David Everett, Vicar of All Saints, Market Weighton, concerning the Bishops’ Pastoral Statement.
The Thinking Liturgy piece Alternative Services reminded us that this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the enactment of the Prayer Book (Alternative and Other Services) Measure 1965 – the Measure of the former Church of England Assembly that for the first time enabled the Church to revise the 1662 services of the Prayer Book and to make extra provision.
Frank duly responded to Adam Wagner’s call for suggestions for the fifty most important human rights cases – though inspiration failed after No 16.
The only law & religion case he nominated was R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages  UKSC 77, in which Lord Toulson helpfully defined “religion” in non-Deist terms as a spiritual or non-secular belief system that claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the Infinite and teaches its adherents how to live in conformity with that belief, whether or not it involves a Supreme Being. Which makes it clear – and not before time – that “religion” is not necessarily about a god or gods. He didn’t mention Eweida and Ors v United Kingdom  ECHR 37: it may be important to specialists but it’s not at all clear how much difference it makes to the wider world of human rights beyond “religion”.
The other case he might have nominated, but didn’t, was Hirst v UK (No. 2)  ECHR 681 on votes for prisoners. It should be important; but since the Government has done precisely zilch about it (and the Official Opposition doesn’t seem any keener than HMG to comply) it has had no effect on the system whatsoever.
 The Daily Telegraph cited this, inter alia, as evidence that The Left is fanatical about abortion. The article picked up the point made by David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con) [Col 126] and asserted: “1. The amendment was an attempt to limit abortion access in the future because it introduced into law language referring to ‘the unborn child’. This is nonsense: the 1967 Abortion Act already refers to a foetus as a ‘child’”. However, as Dr Wollaston had pointed out, it was important to consider the context of section 1(1)(d), which states “that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”
 Lord Deben stated [Col 1586] “I know that it is regarded by some as a wrecking amendment. I do not see, read or hear it in that way.” However, technically-speaking it wasn’t: in Parliamentary terms, a wrecking amendment is one that, if agreed to, would leave the text of the bill or the motion defective.