Page last updated at 21:33 GMT, Monday, 12 May 2008 22:33 UK

Embryology laws pass first hurdle

Alan Johnson opens Commons fertility debate

MPs have voted to allow controversial plans to update human embryology laws to continue to their next Parliamentary stage, despite deep splits among MPs.

The bill was given its second reading by 340 votes to 78, a majority of 262.

Some Labour MPs have said they will fight measures - which include creating embryos with animal and human material to grow stem cells for research.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson said research would be subject to a "strict legal and ethical framework".

The bill will now undergo detailed scrutiny. The key votes on the individual components are expected to come next week.

'Saviour siblings'

The government, faced with the prospect of a rebellion by Roman Catholic ministers, has promised Labour MPs a free vote on the three most contentious issues.

These are the creation of hybrid embryos, "saviour siblings" and the proposal that IVF clinics should no longer have to consider the need for a "father" figure when deciding whether to offer treatment

Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs have been offered a free vote on all elements of the bill.

Because scientists can do something, it does not mean that they should
Andrew Lansley
Conservatives

But the government says its overall potential to speed up research into treatment conditions like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's means it must be passed. Labour votes will be whipped at the bill's second and third readings.

Opening the debate, Health Secretary Alan Johnson said the 1990 human fertilisation and embryology act needed updating to keep pace with scientific advances.

He said research would be done within a strict ethical and legal framework.

'Very regulated'

Mr Johnson said scientists wanted to create so-called "ad-mixed embryos" - usually used to grow stem cells for research - because of a shortage of human eggs and said they would be 99.9% human. They are not allowed to continue after 14 days.

Among Labour critics were Catholic backbencher Geraldine Smith who said the creation of hybrid embryos was "revolting" and of saviour siblings - born in order to help another child - was "appalling".

HAVE YOUR SAY
If God did not want us to do these things, He would not have given us the tools and intellect to proceed
Nanette, Brighton

"We should not be putting parents in that awful position of deciding whether they create a child for the sole purpose of just helping another child," she said.

Conservative former minister Gary Streeter said no therapies had been developed as a result of embryonic stem cell research and he was against "human ad-mixed embryos".

"It seems to me that mixing the life essence of humans and animals in this way just seems to be plain wrong and a slippery slope to who knows where."

'No hypocrisy'

But Labour's Ian Gibson, a member of the Stem Cell Foundation, said embryological research was done in a "very regulated environment" under the HFEA.

He said: "There are people in this House, one or two I know, who have got parts of a pig attached to their heart. It keeps them alive.

"I don't think we want any hypocrisy in this area. You can have combined pigs and human beings to keep people alive in this House and elsewhere too."

And another Labour MP, Jim Devine said: "This is not about creating Frankenstein-type monsters."

For the Conservatives, Andrew Lansley said the government had only allowed a "partial" free vote on the Bill - which, as it had "ethical issues at its heart", should have been conducted wholly on a free vote basis.

However, he added that it was important to recognise the old 1990 Act did need updating.

"The legislation is not just about reflecting scientific progress. Because scientists can do something, it does not mean that they should. Ethical boundaries do not shift in a mechanistic way to reflect the utility of new research techniques," he said.

Norman Lamb, for the Liberal Democrats, said the party was "pro-science, in favour of research but within proper limits and with proper safeguards".

He said MPs had a responsibility to conduct the debate in a measured tone, avoiding exaggeration and respecting other viewpoints.

"Church leaders have a particular responsibility in the comments they make," he said.




SEE ALSO
Embryology Bill: the key points
09 May 08 |  Health
In quotes: The ethics of embryos
23 Mar 08 |  UK Politics
Pressure mounts over embryo bill
22 Mar 08 |  UK Politics
Brown criticised over embryo bill
21 Mar 08 |  Scotland

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