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The fundamentalists may have lost the battle, but they may yet win the war

A concerted assault on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill by the religious establishment — including the Catholic Church, the Church of England and a motley crew of right-wing religious pressure groups — failed this week to retard science and restrict women’s rights. Groups such as CARE, the Christian Institute, Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship, Conservative Christian Fellowship and seemingly endless numbers of anti-abortion groups had poured huge resources into lobbying, advertising and inciting their followers to press MPs. It was all to nought, and parliamentarians defeated their amendments one after the other.

The Catholic Church had particularly wanted to cut the time limit for abortions, working on the principle that that any reduction would be a step towards their ultimate ambition of outlawing abortion completely. Or, as Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor put it in an interview with Ruth Gledhill of the Times: “It is perfectly licit for politicians who may be totally against all abortion to work for incremental change.” The Church had also wanted to stop the progress of embryology research by opposing the creation of hybrid embryos. Scottish Cardinals had spoken out in apocalyptic terms, using phrases such as “Frankenstein technology” – rhetoric that had the reverse effect of what was intended and turned people away from the Church’s standpoint.

Attempts by the Catholic MP Ian Duncan Smith to restrict the use of IVF treatment to those families that had fathers were also thrown out.

The Catholic Church is furious about this set back and has called on voters to target the seats of MPs who rejected the restrictions on abortion. Peter Jennings, spokesperson for Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, told the Daily Telegraph: "I would encourage all Catholics, Christians and members of all faiths who support the value of human life to think very carefully before they put their 'x' beside a name at the next general election. I would have thought no member of Parliament who voted against human life deserves re-election.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, commented: “It was good to see these religious reactionaries routed in this way, but we should not assume that they have gone away. Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP who spearheaded the campaign to restrict the abortion time limit, was supported by several very right-wing religious organisations, including the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship, CARE and the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Many of the Tories who spoke in the debate made clear that they were coming from a religious perspective. If the Tories regain power, we can expect to see such people gaining much more influence.”

As Mary Riddell put it in the Daily Telegraph: “If the Tories win the general election, then expect another battle and another scoreline. Next time it will be Science nil, God one. Liberal Britain has been put on notice.” Her fears were confirmed by an unnamed “senior Tory” who told the Telegraph: that when MPs next vote on abortion, the time limit will be cut regardless of the scientific evidence. “If we get back in next time, we'll have at least 70 more Tory MPs, and we know how Tories vote on abortion. So it’s coming down, it’s just a matter of time. Last night was just the last stand of the 1960s liberal generation.”

Terry Sanderson said “Despite the repeated drubbings, the religious Right in this country never give up. I fear that their persistence will ultimately pay off when the political wind turns in their direction — which it is clearly doing, as last night’s by-election victory for the Tories illustrates — the gains that secularists, women and gays have made over the past couple of decades will be under pressure again.”

Meanwhile, the Channel 4 Dispatches programme In God’s Name took a behind-the-scenes look at some of the people driving this new religio-political agitation. The programme made clear why this movement is so ineffectual, populated as it is by hate-filled old ladies and geeky men who seem to have no perception of how unpleasantly eccentric they appear to other people. The leading light of the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship, Andrea Williams was shown running around like a headless chicken when a particularly wild evangelist started his loud-mouthed fire and brimstone preaching in front of the assembled media, which she was trying desperately to manipulate.

The execrable Stephen Green of Christian Voice was also shown up to be a man with no self-awareness and with an obsession about homosexuality and Muslims – both of which he quite happily traduced for the benefit of the cameras and his mini-congregation of bag ladies and people with obvious psychiatric problems. Eventually a seagull deposited a large dollop onto him and this he interpreted as a sign from God that he shouldn’t co-operate further with the programme. But these are the people that a future Tory government will invite them to help run the country.

Equally alarming were pictures from a fundamentalist Christian school that showed children being brainwashed with creationism and other idiocy. And apparently, according to the headteacher, it is all being done with the happy collusion of the Government.

Watch the Dispatches programme in full

See also:
The fundamentalists are in it for the long haul
Murphy O’Connor: I’ll get my way on abortion eventually

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23 May 2008