Catholic fury at stem-cell rethink

Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop, Denis Hart, has launched a scathing attack on the State Government, saying its move to allow research on spare IVF embryos was like "cannibalising them for spare parts while still alive".

Archbishop Hart also accused state and federal governments of rushing through the ethical debate about embryonic stem-cell research, and making decisions that did not reflect "informed" community views.

"We can only pray that by the grace of Easter our leaders will renounce the logic of darkness and death and support instead reverence for every human life from conception until natural death," Dr Hart said.

His attack came after Premier Steve Bracks foreshadowed legislation to overturn the prohibition on scientists harvesting stem cells from excess IVF embryos in Victoria.

Labor's Victorian MPs agreed to take a joint position to next month's Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, calling for a national stance to allow the research in all states and territories.

It is expected that Prime Minister John Howard will now also advocate national rules allowing the research, after reviewing moves by federal cabinet for a ban.

Dr Hart, responding to revelations in The Age yesterday of Mr Howard's rethink, accused him of giving too much weight to the views of scientists. "I am concerned that we will lose sight of the value of life and the value of people. It is a draconian step," he said.

He also lashed out at Mr Bracks. "It is a cause of the deepest shame that our Premier will be going to the (COAG) meeting arguing that human beings should be treated like lab animals." style='font-size:

Mr Bracks said Labor would proceed with the change, regardless of the Federal Government's position, in a bid to ensure that "important research" continues into illnesses including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease.

The ban on the destruction of embryos in Victoria dates back to 1995 and a law introduced by the former Kennett government.

Mr Bracks said the law was not ethically sustainable because scientists were still able to perform research on stem cells lines - taken from embryos that were destroyed in the process - imported from Singapore.

He offered to discuss the change with Dr Hart and any others opposing the changes on ethical grounds.

"I don't believe that this is about conception. I think it's well before that time and I think there'll be a lot of divergent opinions in the

Catholic community about that as well and I have assessed this," Mr Bracks said.

"I have looked at all the evidence and I believe this is the appropriate and sensible and ethical course of action".

Last night, through a spokeswoman, Mr Bracks said that in the case of artificial fertilisation, conception did not occur until an embryo had been successfully implanted.

State Labor MPs have been granted a conscience vote on stem-cell research. The Liberals, who control the upper house of parliament, will also have a free vote.

There were no speakers against the proposal at a Labor caucus meeting yesterday. However, it is expected that a small group of staunch Catholics will vote for continuing the ban.

State Liberal health spokesman Robert Doyle said he would support legislation if it contained appropriate safeguards, including measures to ensure that only excess IVF embryos were used, and no embryos were created specifically for scientific purposes.

It is believed a majority of state Liberal MPs will back the changes if the Howard Government moves to allow the research.

The three Victorian independents have already expressed concerns about overturning the ban, and the Nationals, who have six MPs in each house of parliament, have not formally considered the issue.

However, National Party leader Peter Ryan said through a spokesman that he had "grave concerns about the issue from an ethical point of view".

The deputy director of the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development, Alan Trounson, said scientists had given the Federal Government the best possible information on the life-saving possibilities of embryonic stem-cell research.

Professor Trounson, who had a 50-minute, interview with Mr Howard, praised the government for consulting widely with all stakeholders. "I'd have to say this process has worked in a pretty democratic way, to be honest. People calling it an undemocratic process - I think they've got it wrong."

Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson refused to confirm that cabinet had already decided to support the research and said Mr Howard would consult with church leaders before finalising his position before the COAG meeting next week.

The federal Minister for Ageing, Kevin Andrews, a Catholic and leading opponent of embryonic research, said he had "the utmost confidence" that Mr Howard had taken all views into account. "This is a complex issue," he said. "There are a variety of views which are held in good will and genuinely held by people on all sides."

The Anglican Church has not reached an official position. Bishops met last week to discuss the issue and were unable to reach a consensus.

Islamic leader Sheik Fehmi El-Imam, secretary of the board of Imams, said it was un-Islamic to destroy any living thing, but that Muslim scholars had not agreed on a position.