Religious leaders attack PM's endorsement of embryo bill

London, UK - Religious leaders have attacked the Prime Minister's endorsement of the controversial Human Fertility and Embryology Bill and said the legislation has not been debated fully enough ahead of a crucial vote in Parliament tomorrow.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, famed for denouncing work on human-animal embryos as a form of “Frankenstein Science” made a joint attack with the leaders of the Catholic Church in England and Northern Ireland.

In a separate move, 14 leaders from other Christian denominations, including three senior bishops, came together to voice their opposition to parts of the bill, including the creation of so-called saviour siblings.

Gordon Brown said today that MPs had a duty to “future generations” to vote for the bill at its second reading tomorrow and that the development of hybrid techniques was a “moral endeavour”.

The Prime Minister, whose son Fraser suffers from cystic fibrosis, a condition that could benefit from the research, attacked critics of the Bill. “I have deep respect for those who do not agree with some of the provisions in the Bill because of religious conviction,” he wrote in a national newspaper . “But I believe that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures, and in particular, to give our unequivocal backing within the right framework of rules and standards, to stem cell research.”

Cardinal O’Brien, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Cardinal Sean Brady questioned the Government’s decision to push through legislation ahead of alternative scientific methods. In a joint statement today they said: “Not nearly enough time has been given to discussing these issues and these questions require answers before and not after legislation.

“We support scientific research that seeks to cure disease and suffering,” they continued. “The HFE Bill has focused on embryonic stem cell research. In fact, much greater progress has already been made towards clinical therapies using adult stem cells. Other emerging techniques hold potential for good, without creating and destroying human embryos.”

Dr Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said opposition to the bill was not confined to Catholic consciences. A letter signed by bishops, clergy and the heads of national Christian organisations said: “We would like to make it plain that as people from other Christian traditions we are completely opposed to the creation of animal-human hybrids, saviour siblings and the removal of the obligation on IVF clinics to consider the child's need for a father. This is not a narrowly Roman Catholic issue, nor is it a narrowly Christian issue nor indeed is it a narrowly religious issue. It is a human issue. We need to fight to uphold and protect our humanity.”

The Islamic Medical Association, (IMS) which represents over two million British Muslims, has also condemned parts of the bill. Dr A Majid Katme, spokesman for the IMS said: “For religious, ethical, humane, family and social reasons, British Muslims will fully support our Catholic and Christian friends in their opposition to this dreadful bill.”

Separately, campaigners and MPs said Mr Brown’s article today misunderstood both science and public opinion by calling for a full implementation of the Bill.

David Burrowes, Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, who is organising a seminar for MPs and the public on an alternative to human-animal hybrid research, such as stem and umbilical cord cells, before tomorrow’s vote, said: “It’s disappointing that he [Gordon Brown] is holding such weight on supporting an area of research which, far from putting us in the lead in the world, puts us out on a limb.”

John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, said the Prime Minister’s “blanket endorsement” of the bill blurred the lines between supporting stem-cell research and condoning human-animal hybrids. “Gordon Brown has confounded and confused different moral issues in a completely unhelpful way,” he said.

In a survey commissioned by the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics last week, nearly eight out of ten people said the Government should allow more time for debate on the bill.

Josephine Quintavalle, a spokesman for the group, said Gordon Brown did not understand public opinion: “I don’t think he’s in touch with anything, he’s nailing more nails in his coffin. They devoted 700 hours to debate fox hunting and they’re going to give three hours to debate whether you should kill the unborn child.”

Ian Lucas, co-ordinator of Passion for Life Campaign, a group lobbying against certain elements of the HFE Bill, said Mr Brown was “not respecting the conscience of his MPs”. He said: “Gordon Brown will sway quite a lot of votes by doing this”.