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MPs to be given free vote on parts of new embryo and fertility law

25 March 2008
Appeared in BioNews 450

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; the 'need for a father' to be considered prior to IVF treatment; and 'saviour siblings' - babies conceived following embryo testing to ensure their umbilical cord blood will provide tissue-matched blood stem cells for an existing sick child.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown says that if these three individual sections are backed by MPs, he expects all Labour MPs to vote in favour when there is the final vote on the whole bill. The deal follows mounting criticism of the Bill by parts of the UK's Catholic community, and warnings that some Catholic Labour MPs and cabinet ministers would rebel over the legislation. Protests climaxed over the Easter holiday, when Catholic clergy directly challenged Mr Brown to allow a free vote of conscience, and condemned the bill's provision to allow contentious human 'admixed' embryo research in their sermons across Britain.

This latest campaign prompted UK patient charities to issue an open letter to MPs on Sunday, defending and urging support for admixed embryo research and other research provisions contained within the Bill. The letter was authored by the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Genetic Interest Group, which together represent 223 charities including Cancer Research UK, Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the British Heart Foundation. They argue that the bill will allow high-quality, carefully regulated 'new avenues of scientific inquiry', which could significantly advance our understanding of serious medical conditions to benefit patients and help alleviate the human suffering of millions of people 'at a time when such work is being significantly hampered by a shortage of donated human eggs available for medical research'.

Human admixed embryos (also known as inter-species, hybrid or 'cybrid' embryos) would be created using animal eggs, by removing the animal's genetic material and inserting human nuclei into the egg's cellular shell. The resulting cell would function as a human egg and could be used to create embryos for stem cell derivation. The technique would provide researchers with an alternative source of embryonic stem cells, overcoming the scarcity of human eggs for such research.

This new research provision allows research using current and future unforeseen inter-species embryo research techniques, but prohibits the implantation of human admixed embryos in women or animals, which would remain a criminal offence. The inter-species embryo would not be allowed to develop beyond a few days, by which point it would be a cluster of cells.

However, this criminal sanction seemed to be overlooked by many Catholic clergy, particularly Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien who vehemently warned his Easter congregation of the 'public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion' and alleged that the employment of inter-species embryo research to find cures for diseases is an 'excuse' to legalise something he decries is 'grotesque' and 'evil'. Fertility expert and Labour peer, Lord Winston, responded in the Daily Telegraph, 'His statements are lying. They are misleading and I'm afraid that when the Church, for good motives, tells untruths, it brings discredit upon itself'.

Disgruntled Catholic backbencher Labour MPs and ministers previously rejected Chief Whip Geoff Hoon's 'compromise' to allow dissenting MPs to abstain from voting on the whole bill. Generally, the bill aims to update its 1990 statutory predecessor in line with modern technologies and attitudes. The bill which was vigorously debated and passed in the House of Lords, had its first reading in February. No date is scheduled for the second reading but debate should commence in May.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Brown compromise over embryo vote
BBC News Online |  25 March 2008
Catholic ministers to be given embryo 'opt-out'
The Times |  23 March 2008
Charities enter embryo debate
The Guardian |  23 March 2008
Labour seek embryo bill compromise
PA |  24 March 2008
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