BY SIMON CALDWELL
GORDON BROWN is facing renewed calls from church leaders to grant MPs a free vote on plans to legalise the creation of human-animal "chimeras" for experimentation.
The Prime Minister came under pressure from the Catholic bishops of Scotland who said he should allow parliamentarians to follow their consciences on the issue.
The bishops said that the provisions in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which will pass from the Lords into the Commons next month, were "morally unsound".
And in a letter to 500 Catholic parishes throughout the country they said that it would be wrong for Mr Brown to impose a Government whip on a matter so ethically contentious.
The letter, signed on behalf of the bishops by Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, said that the Church acknowledges and defends the right and duty of MPs to vote in such issues according to conscience.
"It is true that MPs represent their constituents and must reflect in a general way their needs and aspirations,said Archbishop Conti.
'They must also be mindful of the pragmatic manifesto of the party to which they belong and for which they were elected.
"However, their personal integrity is essential both in regard to their private lives which should conform to their public stances and their votes which should reflect their ethical convictions in issues of justice and morality.
"in such matters they must enjoy the freedom which belongs to every citizen and it is to be hoped that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet will respect that freedom and allow a free vote for all in Parliament."
The archbishop, who is also the chairman of the Joint Bioethics Committee of the bishops of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, said that while some scientists hoped to develop cures for untreatable illnesses, the "opportunism of those in the scientific field in the pay of commercial interests appears staggering in its cynical exploitation of the situation".
He also defended the right of the Church to participate in the debate.
Archbishop Conti said: "The Catholic Church is likely to be criticised for seeking to influence the current debate in Parliament.
"This should not deter us from standing up for what is right. Apart from the fact that the Church is not alone in its opposition to the proposed legislation, it has a democratic right to support those who adhere to its well-developed and coherent bio-ethical teaching and to put forth arguments to assist politicians who seek to make a conscientious decision in their role as legisla tors." The intervention of the Scottish bishops mirrors that of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, who earlier this month asked Catholics to call on MPs to demand a free vote on the human-animal hybrids, and the creation by IVF of a class of children who will have no legal fathers.
So far, Mr Brown has resolutely refused to allow a free vote on the two issues, and it is likely that he may even impose a whip on Labour MPs to vote for them in order for the Government Bill to succeed.
The Government has promised scientists that they will be allowed animal-human "chimeras" for medical research into diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
The hybrid embryos would be destroyed after 14 days and not allowed to develop into living creatures.
Under the Bill scientists will be allowed to create "cytoplasmic" hybrids, embryos which are 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent cow or rabbit.
The Bill will also allow research on "true" hybrids created by mixing animal and human sperm and eggs, embryos created by adding animal DNA to human embryos and embryos created by adding animal cells to a human embryo.
The proposals have been described by the Vatican as a "monstrous act against human dignity".