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Cardinal agrees to meet embryo scientists to discuss research

31 March 2008
Appeared in BioNews 451

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 with scientists hoping to carry out the studies. He also invited leaders of all faiths to join the discussion. Livingston Labour MP Jim Devine, a Catholic who supports the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which contains the contentious admixed embryo clause, wrote to Cardinal O'Brien inviting him to an open discussion with the researchers, expected to be held on 22 April.

O'Brien made one demand: 'My only condition would be that the scientists were also willing to accept instruction from our Churches and peoples of faith on basic morality, on what human life really is, on the purpose of our life on earth and so on'. In response, Professor Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council, who was 'delighted' by the acceptance stated, 'I hope the Church will accept that even scientists that do no profess religious beliefs do still have a strong moral compass...'.

Politicians and scientists alike have welcomed the agreement for an open forum discussion, following protests which climaxed over the Easter holiday. Several senior Catholic clergy condemned 'admixed' human embryo research as a violation of human dignity and the sanctity of life, resulting in an outpour of support and counter-arguments from different sectors of society over the past week. While the clergy urged Catholic MPs to vote according to their Catholic convictions and oppose the Bill, 223 medical charities wrote a joint, open letter urging support from MPs.

Last Friday, Jewish leaders announced their joint support for the Bill. Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who evaluated the Bill in committee last year, said: 'I don't think we have a problem with it in Judaism, from Liberal to Orthodox'. Stamford Hill Rabbi Avraham Pinter provided an orthodox viewpoint, 'What they are doing is not capable of sustaining life and they can't nurture it into an embryo, therefore I can't see that there is any prohibition from a halachic point of view...It's a question of saving and enhancing life...'.

The previous chair of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Baroness Ruth Deech, criticised Cardinal O'Brien for his incendiary Easter sermon as 'ill-informed and histrionic'. 'His comments are dangerous in terms of hindering future research - we are not talking about creating half-man, half-animal here...I think it's important to use our intelligence to save lives...'. Edinburgh's Labour opposition leader and Church of Scotland minister Ewan Aitken has also objected to O'Brien's stance, saying 'I hold him in high regard, but on the issue of embryo research he is wrong'. He contends that the Bill will allow for important research that would 'help heal and save lives'.

Catholic scientist, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who is Chief executive of the Medical Research Council, presented an alternative Catholic interpretation when he ardently defended the Bill as consistent with his faith in an interview with The Times on Saturday. He criticised the Church for couching its opposition in emotive language that misrepresents the research and ignored 'important safeguards that are built into the legislation'. He said: 'My conscience tells me very firmly that I should support the Bill...because of the scientific and therapeutic opportunities that this new legislation will provide'.

The Bill would allow admixed human embryos (also referred to as 'hybrid', 'cybrid' or inter-species embryos), to be created by inserting human DNA into empty animal eggs. Animal and human DNA are not mixed and the resulting embryos are more that 99 per cent human. The law requires their destruction after 14 days and it would remain a criminal offence to implant them in a womb to create a child.

Aitken attacks cardinal's views
The Scotsman |  29 March 2008
Cardinal to meet embryo experts
BBC News Online |  29 March 2008
Rabbis back embryo bill as a life-saver
The |  28 March 2008
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz says Church is wrong on hybrid embryo Bill
The Times |  29 March 2008
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