March 23, 2008 / 4:20 PM / 11 years ago

British government confident about embryo bill

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government is confident it can push through legislation allowing human-animal embryo research, as calls for a free vote on the sensitive bill grew, Health Secretary Alan Johnson told Sky News on Sunday.

British Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, addresses the annual Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, southern England, September 25, 2007. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

A number of leading Roman Catholic clergymen, including cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, want British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to give MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, as does former Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers.

“I’m convinced the House of Commons will carry this bill,” Johnson told Sky News.

“There will not be a cabinet split, but there will be an accommodation for those who have a particular sensitivity around this, including those whose sensitivity relates to the faith.”

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

“On matters like this I want to reach my own decision and not be instructed how to vote,” Byers told the Observer.

“The public will look on in disbelief if a matter as sensitive as the creation of human-animal embryos is made a matter of party policy with the government instructing its MPs how to vote.”

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.

Supporters of the 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.

“The bill will help the UK maintain its excellent regulatory framework governing cutting-edge research; research which will help us find the treatments of tomorrow,” said chief executive of the Medical Research Council Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

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.

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

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