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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.

Medical research charities, including the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, have issued an open letter also urging MPs to back embryo research, but the Catholic Church says that the idea is "monstrous".

Sir Gerald Kaufman, a Labour minister in the 1970s, said he was opposed to the research.

"How far doyou go?Where doyou stop?

What are the limits andwhat are the boundaries?" he said.

"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."

Embryo research: Your questions answered about the Bill

What are the flashpoints?

There are four main issues causing friction.

The Bill would give the green light to research using hybrid or "admix" embryos, where the nuclei of a human cell is inserted into an animal egg.

The resulting embryos would be kept for up to 14 days in order to harvest stem cells, which are crucial for many cutting edge medical treatments.

Secondly, the legislation also backs the idea of "saviour siblings" - meaning parents will be allowed to select children whose genetic material could help sick relatives.

Thirdly, the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the "need for a father" when handing out treatment could be removed - giving lesbians easier access.

Amendments have also been tabled by backbenchers which would tighten abortion laws, by reducing the upper limit from 24 weeks to 22, 20 or even 16 weeks.

Why is it so important to science?

Supporters of the Bill believe that the creation of human-animal embryos could help scientists find cures for diseases including multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and Alzheimer's.

Currently the availability of stem cells is limited due to shortages in human eggs.

Medical research and technology have progressed hugely since the Human Embryology Act of 1990, and experts say the law needs updating to reflect those changes if medical breakthroughs are to occur.

Who backs it?

The Bill has supporters on both sides of the Commons, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Gay rights protesters and many scientists are all in favour of the proposed embryology changes.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has insisted there is no evidence that the upper abortion limit needs changing.

Who is against it?

Religious leaders have attacked many elements of the Bill, and Catholic Cabinet ministers and MPs also oppose parts of it.

The Catholic church has said it particularly objects to the use of animal-human embryos, known as "chimeras", because it believes that a fertilised embryo should be regarded as human, and should not be destroyed or terminated.

Catholics and Church of England figures such as the Archbishop of York criticise the reforms of IVF rules, claiming they undermine the role of fathers and of the family.

Demands for reducing the upper abortion limit are also strongest among religious groups, with claims that scientific advances mean very premature babies now have a chance of survival.

What is the timetable for the Bill?

Following last night's votes, there are further debates in the Commons today, including on abortion.

If passed by both Houses, the legislation could come into force early next year.


SIGN OF LIFE: An ultrasound scan of a male baby aged 24 weeks rubbing his nose Picture: Prof Stuart Campbell / Rex Features
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 20, 2008
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