Gordon Brown and his chief whip Geoff Hoon have faced pressure to allow Labour MPs a “free vote” over the upcoming Human and Embryology Bill.
Top figures in the Catholic church used their Easter sermons to lobby against the bill.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic church in Scotland, denounced the bill as a “monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life”.
He described plans for human/animal embryo research as experiments of “Frankenstein proportion”.
Brown is also under pressure from a number of usually loyal MPs on the right of the Labour Party. Three cabinet ministers are reported to be considering resigning if they are not given a free vote.
It is remarkable that the the government has been so shaken over an issue that is quite marginal to Brown’s political plans. It is a sign of the government’s weakness and a reminder of the strength of right wing lobbies inside New Labour.
The government helped to set the terrain for the current outcry by allowing a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2000, thus institutionalising the idea that these matters are up to individual conscience.
The immediate cause of the recent outburst has been the proposal to allow scientists to create “hybrid” animal/human embryos – known in the bill as admixed embryos.
This is not as dramatic as recent headlines would have us believe. Human embryo research and forms of therapeutic cloning are already legal.
The bill would extend this to allow the mixing of animal and human elements in embryos for medical research.
It would allow the inserting of human DNA into animal eggs – which would basically be vessels for holding the human genetic information.
These embryos would be 99.9 percent human. They could be used to create stem cells from a patient’s own DNA which could help to develop treatments for degenerative diseases and damaged tissues.
Many scientists and charities have pointed out that this will deal with the shortage of available human eggs and allow
vital research into life-threatening diseases and genetic disorders.
So far from being an attack on human life, the changes may help to save lives. This is why more than 200 British charities signed a letter this week to all MPs arguing that the bill’s proposals are essential to the future of their work.
The “hybrid” embryos will not create a new “monstrous” species.
Without gestation they cannot live. As with current embryo research, they will be destroyed within 14 days and it will be illegal to implant them in the womb of a woman or an animal.
Some who oppose the bigots have genuine concerns about embryo research – in particular questions over the safety and control of the research.
These concerns reflect a wider problem of the way in which science is driven by the market and not by need.
Scientific and medical knowledge is not shared, but claimed and patented as private property.
However, most of those who object to the “hybrid” embryo research oppose all research with embryos. They argue that using embryos is tampering with the sanctity of life.
Yet all medicine is about tampering with “life”. The logic of this argument is presumably to make no attempt to stem disease or illness.
Behind the immediate outcry over embryos lies a vicious attack on a woman’s right to choose over abortion.
The bill, which will probably be heard in the commons in May, is open to amendments on abortion legislation. MPs expect attempts to cut the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks.
Tory MP Anne Widdecombe toured Britain earlier this year trying to whip up support for her anti-abortion stance.
Any cutting of the time limit would be a serious attack on women’s rights.
The appeal to the sanctity of life rings hollow when you look at the voting records of the three cabinet ministers most opposed to the bill – all are strong supporters of the war on Iraq. Yet issues of war, poverty and privatisation are not seen as matters of “conscience” or “ethics”.
The bill contains other measures worthy of support. It allows more rights to gay parents, screening for genetic disorders and cells from healthy children to be used to treat siblings with serious illnesses.
None of these issues are matters of “conscience”. They are political issues.
Abortion Rights lobby of parliament, Wednesday 7 May, from 3-6pm, followed by a public meeting. For more go to » www.abortionrights.org.uk