Sensitivemoral Issueswhich Cross the Usual Party Political Boundaries
Byline: Tomos Livingstone Political Editor
P ARTY politics were put aside at Westminster yesterday as MPs wrestled with their consciences and debated the ethics of embryo research.
The issue has even divided the Cabinet, with at least three senior ministers, all Roman Catholics, feeling unable to support key measures within the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill.
Last night, MPs voted in favour of allowing the use of human-animal hybrids for experiments; these "admix" embryos are created when the nuclei of human cells are injected into animal eggs, creating hybridembryoswhichare allowedto grow for up to 14 days before being destroyed.
The resulting embryos are more than 99% human, with a small animal component of around 0.1%, and the idea is less contentious than the creation of 50-50 "true hybrids" - a development opposed by many scientists.
The aim of creating admix embryos is to harvest so-called stem cells that might be used in future to create brain, skin, heart and other tissue for treating diseases. But critics question the value of the research - and some balk at what they see as playing God.
These are the first changes to the laws on research and fertility clinics since 1990.
Gordon Brown, whose son Fraser has cystic fibrosis, made an impassioned appeal for support, saying "The scientists I speak to are committed to what they see as an inherently moral endeavour, that can save and improve the lives of thousands and, over time, millions."
Further debates will come today on the need for a father figure to be considered when offering IVF treatment - this vote is expected to see MPs stick with the current rules, a blow to campaigners for lesbian couples to have the same rights as heterosexual couples.
And a series of amendments to change the time limit for abortion will also be debated tonight. Mr Brown supports the retention of the current 24-week limit, although Conservative leader David Cameron has indicated he would like to see it lowered. The Tory leader also backs retaining the need for a father-figure to be considered before IVF treatment is offered.
ButMrCameron is in favour of the use of admix embryos. He said: "My own approach to this is the lawneeds updating and the importance of science and research and getting to gripswithgeneticdisease... Iwant to see the research go forward."
Mr Brown's enthusiastic support for the Bill caused him a political problem earlier this year, with many MPs from Catholic backgrounds unhappy that no free vote appeared to be on offer. Matters such as abortion are usually left to MPs' individual consciences, with no attempt by party bosses to force MPs to vote one way or the other.
It was only the intervention of three Cabinet ministers - Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, Defence Secretary Des Browne and Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly - that led to a compromise. Labour MPs were expected to vote in favour of the principle of the whole Bill, but allowed to vote against specific contentious aspects if they wished.
Some MPs, including former ToryMinister Ann Widdecombe, argued yesterday that the medical benefits of admixed embryos were unproved, and her colleague Edward Leigh, who chairs the powerful Public Accounts Committee, said they were "a step too far".
Rhondda MP Chris Bryant, himself a former clergyman, said Mr Leigh's arguments were similar to those used by church leaders against the smallpox vaccine.
"They were wrong and I think you are wrong today," Mr Bryant said. MPs have been subject to intense lobbying, both from colleagues with strongly-held views and from interest groups. …