When the European Parliament voted recently against stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, many British opponents of the research took the opportunity to pronounce that Britain may be falling outside European ethical values. One anti-embryo research activist, Lord David Alton, went as far as to suggest that Britain is a complete outsider on this issue.
In a letter to the Times, Alton told us that 'for the UK Parliament to ignore such strong entreaties may render us a pariah state on bioethical issues'. It all sounds fairly convincing - until some facts are brought into the equation.
Motions passed in the European Parliament have no legal force. Even the European Commission, which does have legislative powers, has no control over the policies in different members states when it comes to issues such as abortion, assisted reproduction or embryo research. These are matters which are considered best decided by national parliaments.
Another issue missing from the coverage of the European Parliament motion - passed by a majority of just seven - was that it also called for a ban on embryo research. It states: 'experimentation on already existing embryos left over from in vitro artificial insemination offends human dignity'. In this sense, the motion is out of line with many European countries, where IVF and embryo research have been undertaken for some years. Britain is certainly not out of step with European ethical values in this respect.
Nor is Britain out of step with many other member states on the issue of stem cell research. It's just that Britain is the only country proposing to make the research legal and to get started on it. Even Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, has talked of the ethical imperative of pursuing this research. Let's hope that the UK government keeps its nerve and sets an example to the rest of Europe.