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Religious MPs get free vote on hybrid embryos

Brown compromises following Church pressure

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An Easter of intense religious lobbying has forced Gordon Brown to allow a free vote on whether the law should be changed to allow new research on embryos and stem cells.

The Catholic Church used its louder voice at this time of year to launch a co-ordinated campaign against the new fertilisation and embryology bill, particularly hybrid embryos, which it described as "monstrous". The presence in the Cabinet of hardline Christians such as transport secretary Ruth Kelly threatened an embarrassing split over the ethics of stem cell research.

Downing Street now says Labour MPs will be allowed to vote with their personal conscience on three aspects of the proposed legislation. The free votes in will cover relaxing IVF research rules, allowing hybrid embryos and so-called "saviour siblings" (parents could select an embryo with compatible bone marrow to help an existing sick child, for example).

The Prime Minister said that if the Commons votes in favour of the three strands then all Labour MPs will then be expected to approve the bill in its entirety.

Scientists argue that the new legislation is needed to advance treatments for a raft of conditions including Parkinson's and spinal injury. It's hoped that hybrid embryos will provide a ready supply of stem cells that are more than 99 per cent human, yet do not rely on the trickle of human eggs left over from IVF treatment.

Hybrids are created by injecting human DNA into empty animal eggs, usually sourced from cows. The bill would insist that embryos are destroyed.

Speaking at the launch of Labour's local government election campaign, Brown said: "I do believe that in stem cell research we have the power in the future to treat and to cure some of the diseases that have afflicted mankind for centuries."

"The bill itself cannot be subject to a free vote because there are so many other changes that I believe are necessary as part of building up the research framework of our country and, of course, creating the right ethical framework for the development of embryo research."

A letter signed by 200 medical charities has been sent to every MP explaining why they believe the new regulations are necessary. In January the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority approved the first experiments on hybrids under existing legislation. ®

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