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UK Labour MPs offered abstention from embryo bill vote

10 March 2008
Appeared 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.

500 sign anti-embryo petition
Kenilworth Weekly News |  7 March 2008
Brown facing revolt by Catholics Labour MPs over flagship Bill to allow embryo research
The Daily Mail |  6 March 2008
Catholic MPs win opt-out on embryo Bill
The Daily Telegraph |  7 March 2008
Conscience vote
The Times |  7 March 2008
More than 100 academics call for MPs to have free vote on embryo research
The Times |  7 March 2008
9 April 2008 - by Sheila AM McLean 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill, currently making its way through the UK's Parliament, marks the first major re-think of the original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, passed in 1990. In the almost 20 years since the Act was passed, new medical developments and techniques have emerged which raise...
31 March 2008 - by MacKenna Roberts 
The head of Scotland's Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien - who in his Easter Sunday sermon attacked the government's proposal to allow research using inter-species or human 'admixed' embryos, calling it 'government supported experiments of Frankenstein proportions' - said he would be 'only too happy' to attend a meeting...
25 March 2008 - by MacKenna Roberts 
Labour MPs are to be allowed a 'free vote' on three controversial aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently before the House of Commons. MPs will be allowed to vote according to their conscience on: the use of animal eggs in embryo stem cell research...
17 March 2008 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
Catholic pressure to amend some of the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2007, currently passing through parliament in the UK, is increasing. Last week, the Vatican added the destruction of embryos to a new list of mortal sins and, according to the BBC...
5 March 2008 - by Dr Karen Devine 
This week, three Catholic Cabinet ministers in the UK have threatened to quit their posts following government proposals to allow the creation of hybrid embryos - embryos made using animal eggs that have their nuclei replaced with human genetic material, for use in stem cell research. The MPs...
26 February 2008 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has sent a pastoral message urging Catholics to write to MPs in opposition to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which will be debated in the House of Commons in the coming weeks. In his message, the cardinal wrote that...
8 October 2007 - by Danielle Hamm 
The UK government has paved the way ahead for the Human Tissue and Embryos (HTE) Bill in its response to the Bill Scrutiny Committee, which was released today. The Government has taken on many of the Committee's recommendations, including the rejection of plans to merge the current...
3 September 2007 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
A Parliamentary committee has recently challenged several proposals in the UK Government's draft revised legislation for assisted reproduction and embryo research, published earlier this year. These areas of biomedical research and personal reproductive decisions raise important ethical and social issues. As such, the committee report is welcome, because it re-opens...
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