10 March 2008
ByAppeared in BioNews 448
The controversy sparked by the introduction of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2007, which is being debated in the UK House of Commons over the next few months, looks set to continue. The Daily Telegraph newspaper has reported that in an unusual move, Chef Whip Geoff Hoon will invoke special Labour party rules to permit MPs to abstain from the forthcoming vote. However, several MPs have already rejected the offer, and say they want to vote according to their conscience.
The Bill will overhaul the law regarding embryo research and fertility treatments in light of recent advancements in medical science. If passed in its present form, it would allow the creation of human-animal embryo hybrids for the purpose of medical research, which scientists claim are essential to the development of new treatments for conditions such as motor neurone disease and cystic fibrosis. A number of UK Catholic Cabinet ministers had already threatened to resign over the initial requirement for them to toe the party line and back the plans without being given a free vote. Now, according to the Telegraph, Mr Hoon says that 'nobody will be required to vote against their conscience'.
More than 100 leading academics across the country have also called upon Prime Minister Gordon Brown to grant MPs a free vote. 108 scientists, lawyers, philosophers and theologians signed a letter to The Times newspaper stating that whilst they did not hold 'a single common view' on the content of the Bill, they remained united in the belief that 'political parties should not erode the principle of a 'conscience vote' on controversial bioethical legislation'.
In response to the continuing backlash that the Bill has perpetuated, Mr Hoon explained that 'this is important legislation and whilst I entirely respect the strong moral sensitivities of colleagues there are also strong moral sensitivities in relation to research into a number of appalling diseases'. But the compromise offered by Hoon has angered some Labour MPs, who feel that they should be allowed a free vote on the Bill, like their Conservative colleagues. Greg Pope, the Labour MP for Hyndburn, told the Sunday Telegraph: 'I have had hundreds of letters from constituents about human-animal hybrids. The idea that I turn round to them and say the Chief Whip has given me the day off from voting will cut no ice at all'.
Church ministers have also joined the debate. A representative from the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales stated that 'to do this would be a radical violation of human dignity'. Father Kevin Hooper, parish priest of St Francis Church, Kenilworth, commented: 'I have an earnest desire to see MPs be given the chance to follow their conscience in the sensitive matters in this Bill and also that due respect be given to unborn life'. He added, 'I have an abhorrence to creating hybrid embryos for what seems to be no practical purpose'. Parishioners in the Kenilworth area have felt so strongly about what they deem is a misuse of life that they have handed a 500-signature petition to their local MP.