British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has decided to allow a free vote on the “ethical” aspects of a controversial fertilization and embryology bill after some Catholic cabinet ministers said they were prepared to resign their positions rather than vote for the bill, the Guardian reports.
Brown said that Ministers of Parliament with the Labour Party would be allowed a free vote on the three most controversial aspects of the bill: the provision allowing the creation of hybrid embryos where human DNA is inserted into an animal cell; the “savior sibling” provision which allows embryos to be tested for donor compatibility with a child suffering a serious medical condition; and a provision concerning IVF research.
MPs from the Tory and the Liberal Democrat parties have already been offered a free vote on the bill.
The transport secretary Ruth Kelly and the Welsh secretary Paul Murphy were said to be among those Labour Party members who could have resigned rather than support the bill.
The free vote will be allowed during a “report stage” when the House of Commons considers each clause of the bill. During the second and third readings of the bill, Labour MPs will be called on to support the bill as a whole.
The prime minister said he felt “very strongly” about the bill, which would support research he believed would lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and heart disease.
"I do believe that with stem-cell research we have the power in the future to treat and cure some of the diseases that have afflicted mankind for centuries," Brown said to reporters at a Labour campaign event.
"I don't think you can underestimate the importance scientists attach to the advances made possible by embryo stem-cell research," he continued.
The bill also deregulates IVF treatments, which are presently required to consider the child’s need for a father.
Church leaders like Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, have raised concerns about the bill.
Over this past weekend, sermons condemning the legislation were heard in Catholic churches across Britain.
Some scientists have attacked the Church’s opposition. Dr. Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College, London, said he thought the bill’s critics were using “intentionally inflammatory” language.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and Archbishop Peter Smith, the chair of the bishops’ conference department for Citizenship and Responsibility, issued a statement welcoming Prime Minister Brown’s announcement of a free vote. “The free vote will be welcomed by people of all faiths or none who are concerned about the implications of this Bill that go to the heart of what it means to be human,” their statement said.
The bishops called scientific research into potential treatments and cures for diseases “both welcome and necessary.” The bishops noted “exciting developments” in the area of adult stem cell research that does not involve “the deliberate creation and destruction of human life.”
“It is surely possible to achieve the good ends pursued by this research without recourse to ethically questionable means,” they said.
The bishops said British society needs a debate about the ethical limits of scientific research and reminded people that they have already asked for a national bioethics committee to focus discussion and give advice on such matters.
In a separate statement, the Archbishop of Birmingham Vincent Nichols called the prime minister’s announcement of a free vote “welcome news.”
“This matters greatly not only to Catholics but also to people of other faiths and those who have clear ethical concerns,” he said.