- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

LONDON — Religious leaders and pro-life campaigners have angrily attacked the British government for its refusal to ban the creation of animal-human embryos and so-called “savior siblings” — research described by one Roman Catholic cardinal as a form of “Frankenstein” science.

Government forces in the House of Commons on Monday drove back attempts to derail what some researchers described as the biggest shake-up in nearly two decades of laws governing sensitive scientific work in areas such as stem-cell research.

By a vote of 342-163, Parliament crushed one key amendment to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Human Embryology and Fertilization Bill that was aimed at stopping the use of “hybrid” human-animal embryos in stem-cell research.

The Brown administration has accepted claims by many leading scientists that such “human admixed embryos” are vital to the quest for cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which the prime minister considers a key element of his embryo legislation.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, denounced Mr. Brown’s stance with fury. He called research into hybrid embryos a “hideous” concept involving experiments of “Frankenstein proportion.”

Such hybrid embryos are created by inserting the nuclei of a human cell into an animal egg, thus producing, scientists say, a bountiful supply of stem cells for their research.

Cardinal O’Brien and other British religious stalwarts and pro-lifers also were dismayed that Parliament defeated, also by a 342-163 vote, an amendment to the embryology bill that aimed to ban “savior siblings” — children created as close genetic matches that could be used to treat an ailing sister or brother.

A group of Catholic leaders headed by Cardinal O’Brien attacked the government for pushing through the embryo legislation without adequately considering alternatives to what they consider an unethical scientific method.

“Not nearly enough time has been given to discussing these issues,” the cardinals said in a joint statement, “and these questions require answers before and not after legislation.”

They suggested an ethically acceptable alternative in the “much greater progress [that] has already been made toward clinical therapies using adult stem cells,” and insisted that “other emerging techniques hold potential for good, without creating and destroying human embryos.”

The Islamic Medical Association (IMS), which represents more than 2 million Muslims in Britain, stepped into the fray by condemning the embryology and fertilization bill.

“For religious, ethical, humane, family and social reasons,” said IMS spokesman Majid Katme, “British Muslims will fully support our Catholic and Christian friends in their opposition to this dreadful bill.”

Three Catholic members of Mr. Brown’s Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Des Browne, voted for a ban on hybrid embryos, prompting Ian Lucas, co-coordinator of the Passion for Life Campaign, to suggest that the prime minister was “not respecting the conscience” of his own Labor members of Parliament.

Mr. Lucas, whose pro-life group is lobbying against parts of the embryology bill, said the prime minister, whose public popularity has hit its lowest ebb, “will sway quite a few votes by doing this.”

Mr. Brown, battling to get his Human Embryology and Fertilization Bill through Parliament with as little damage as possible, insisted that “we owe it to ourselves and our future generation to introduce these measures, and … to give our unequivocal backing within the right framework of rules and standards to stem-cell research.”

Despite the vocal opposition outside and occasionally inside Parliament, Mr. Brown’s bill is expected to pass with relative ease.

The prime minister has personal reasons for standing his ground. His younger son, Fraser, now nearly 2, suffers from cystic fibrosis, one of the diseases that scientists think could benefit one day from stem-cell research.

Britain’s Medical Research Council and its chief executive, Leszek Borysiewicz, backed his stance. They said winning the battle with religious and pro-life leaders would help keep Britain at the forefront of stem-cell technology research.

The government’s legislation “brings the right balance of opportunities to make headway to find cures for some of the most pernicious diseases … while ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place.”

Dr. Stephen Minger, a leading genetic scientist at London’s King’s College, insisted that stem cells “will be used by research groups throughout the world to generate new therapies for disease, therapies that we simply do not have at the current time.”

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