(by Rosa Prince, Telegraph.co.uk) – [British] Scientists will be allowed to create hybrid human-animal embryos after MPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of radical stem cell research.
During passionate exchanges in the House of Commons, critics of the controversial embryo research proposals warned that Britain was “crossing a Rubicon” and risked becoming a “rogue state”.
But they were heavily outnumbered by those who argued forcefully in favour of the potential for stem cell research using hybrids which scientists believe may transform the lives of millions and eventually stamp out some diseases altogether.
Under the new laws, British scientists will get the right to conduct the most far reaching research into hybrid embryos in the world.
Scientists had complained of being hampered by a lack of human eggs available for research.
As a result of the measures to be introduced in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, they will be able to boost stocks by creating embryos using animal matter, mainly from cows and rabbits.
The move was opposed by religious leaders, including the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who claimed such experiments amounted to “Frankenstein” science, and breached the sanctity of human life.
But health charities and scientists had carried out a successful lobbying campaign of MPs, sending letters from the relatives of those suffering from diseases ranging from motor neurone disease to Alzheimer’s.
Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who both have young sons with severe medical conditions, put on a rare show of unity to back the creation of the hybrids, known as ‘admixed embryos’.
During three hours of debate, cross-party alliances were formed as MPs discussed some of the most pressing issues of conscience for a political generation.
An attempt by critics of embryo research, led by the senior Conservative Edward Leigh, to ban the technique was defeated by 336 votes to 176, as many Tory MPs on the front and backbenches sided with the Government plans.
A number of Labour MPs, among them many Catholics, lined up alongside the majority of Conservatives seeking to block the move.
An alternative attempt to bar “pure hybrids,” which could be as much as 50 per cent animal matter, was also rejected, by a narrower margin of 286 to 223.
Arguing for an all-out ban on hybrid embryos, Mr Leigh told the House: “This does cross the ultimate boundaries between humans and animals.
“There is nobody in this House who denies with these diseases how wonderful it would be if there was some easy way we could cure them.
“Some things are so unnecessarily dangerous that they should be banned.
“No other country is going down this route. In these terms in embryology we would almost be like a rogue state.
“We’re like children playing with landmines without any concept on the danger of the technology that we are handling.
“We can not and should not be spliced together with the animal kingdom.'”
But the former Home Office minister, Fiona Mactaggart, urged MPs to support the extension of embryo research, telling the House that she herself suffered from multiple sclerosis and had been through the painful ordeal of fertility treatment.
She said: “We have an opportunity tonight to – in the future, perhaps not in the short term – make a real difference to chronic diseases.
“It would be a great pity if this House didn’t grasp that opportunity.”
Labour’s Dr Ian Gibson, a member of the Stem Cell Foundation, urged MPs not to limit scientific advances by over-regulating.
He said: “The reason we do science is we have a hunch, an idea. We want to make sure that we can take science on.”
But the respected former Labour minister Sir Gerald Kaufman demanded: “How far do you go? Where do you stop? What are the limits and what are the boundaries?
“If you permit the creation of hybrid embryos now what will you seek to permit next time, even if you have no idea where it will lead.”
The health minister, Dawn Primarolo, countered: “It is not a promise that it will definitely lead to these treatments, it is an aspiration that it might.”
Ahead of the vote, Mr Cameron explained the grounds for his own support for the use of admixed embryos, saying: “My own approach to this is the law needs updating and the importance of science and research and getting to grips with genetic disease … I want to see the research go forward.”
Mr Brown had earlier described the extension of embryo research as a “moral endeavour”, which might ultimately transform the lives of millions.
MPs went on to debate plans to allow the creation of saviour siblings, where parents use fertility treatment to select an embryo which is a genetic match to a sick older child.
On Tuesday night, the House votes on the most controversial aspects of the Bill, when pro-life MPs will table amendments seeking to lower the legal abortion limit from its current 24-week limit.
Mr Cameron and most of the Conservative Party will oppose Government attempts to scrap the “need for a father” requirement for lesbian couples and single women seeking fertility treatment.
Following the free vote, which was conducted on conscience rather than party lines, the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, which spearheaded the opposition to hybrid embryos, vowed to fight on throughout the Bill’s remaining stages.
The group’s spokesman, Labour MP Ian Lucas, said: “To discuss the complex issues surrounding human-animal mixed embryos in three hours is offensively short. It gives MPs no time to explore the true implications.”
The majority of the shadow cabinet – including shadow foreign secretary William Hague and shadow home secretary David Davis – also backed the ban.
MPs also voted against an amendment to ban the creation of saviour siblings by a majority of 179. 163 voted for the ban, and 342 voted against.
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1. Hybrid embryos are created by inserting the nuclei of a human cell into an animal egg. The process involves injecting an empty cow or rabbit egg with human DNA. A burst of electricity is then used to trick the egg into dividing regularly, so that it becomes a very early embryo, from which stem cells can be extracted.
2. Who is mentioned in this article as opposing Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill?
3. For what reason did these various individuals/groups oppose the bill?
4. Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the Labour Party. David Cameron is the leader of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition. Why are these political opponents unified in their support for creating human-animal embryos?
5. a) What was the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons to ban the hybrid embryos?
b) What was the outcome of the vote to ban “pure hybrids” (embryos that could contain 50% animal – 50% human)?
6. Conservative MP Edward Leigh argued for an all-out ban on hybrid embryos. Re-read Mr. Leigh’s comments in paragraphs 14-19. Do you agree with Mr. Leigh’s argument? Explain your answer.
7. Re-read the comments of those who argued for the bill, including Fiona Mactaggart in para. 20-22, Dr. Ian Gibson, para. 23-24, and Dawn Primarolo, para. 27. Do you think their arguments are strong enough to counter what Sir Gerald Kaufman said in para. 25-26, as well as Cardinal Keith O’Brien statement (in para. 7) that such experiments amount to “Frankenstein” science, and breach the sanctity of human life? Explain your answer.
Read more at wikipedia.org.
Read an explanation of the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill here.
Read about a Japanese scientist who opposed the use of embryonic stem cells here.