British minister defends embryo research bill

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government is right to push through hybrid human-animal embryo legislation after a Roman Catholic cardinal attacked the government for “endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion”, Health Minister Ben Bradshaw has told the BBC.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland cardinal Keith O’Brien has called for a proposed new law -- the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill -- to outlaw the practice and wants the government to allow a free vote on the legislation.

“I think if it was about the things the cardinal referred to, creating babies for spare parts or raiding dead people’s tissue then there would be justification for a free vote,” Bradshaw told the BBC Radio 4’s “Any Questions” on Friday.

“But it’s not about those things. He was wrong in fact, and I think rather intemperate and emotive in the way that he criticized this legislation.

“This is about using pre-embryonic cells to do research that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions of people in this country. The Government has taken a view that this is a good thing.

“We have free votes on issues of conscience like abortion, like the death penalty, where the government does not take a view.

“I think in this case the Government’s absolutely right to try to push this through to the potential benefit of many people in this country.”

Supporters of hybrid research say it will give scientists the large number of embryos they need to make stem cells to help find cures for a range of diseases.

Researchers create inter-species hybrids by injecting human DNA into a hollowed-out animal egg cell. The resulting embryo is 99.9 percent human and 0.1 percent animal.

Britain is one of the leading states for stem cell research, attracting scientists from around the world with a permissive environment that allows embryo studies within strict guidelines.

Scientists in China, the United States and Canada have carried out similar work, the same technique used to create Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal.

“This Bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life,” said O’Brien in a speech to be delivered on Sunday.

“We are about to have a public government endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion without many people really being aware of what is going on.”

There are three Catholics in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s cabinet -- Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly and Defense Secretary Des Browne -- with one of them reportedly ready to resign over the proposed law.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which regulates the research, gave permission to two groups of UK-based scientists to use hybrids in January.

The draft law is making its way through parliament and is due to return to the House of Commons in the coming weeks.

The House of Lords rejected attempts earlier this year to include a ban on hybrid research in the draft legislation