vote on 'monstrous' embryo Bill
• Prime Minister sees off threat of rebellion • Church leaders call for ethical research
BY SIMON CALDWELL
ME PRIME Minister has agreed to allow Labour MPs a free vote on controversial fertility laws after Catholic Cabinet Ministers threatened to rebel.
Gordon Brown had also faced fierce criticism from Britain's senior Catholic leaders over the Easter weekend because of an earlier decision to deny his MPs a vote of conscience on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
They were led by Cardinal Keith O'Brien who used a homily on Easter Sunday to accuse Mr Brown of seeking to pass a law which represents a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life".
He was joined south of the border by such high-profile clerics as Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor, Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham and Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster, each of whom said it was wrong for Mr Brown to try to stop Labour MPs from voting with their consciences.
Their interventions came after it emerged that Catholic Cabinet ministers had last week failed to persuade Mr Brown to lift the Government whip on proposals to create animal-human hybrid embryos for destructive experiments.
Discussions between ministers opposed to the Bill and Geoff Hoon, the Chief Whip, had not only resulted in stalemate but had led to the souring of relations between Cabinet colleagues.
The impasse drastically increased the likelihood of a rebellion against the Government bill by as many as twelve Ministers and more than 50 Labour backbenchers. Those most unhappy with the refusal of the Government to grant a conscience vote were the Wales Secretary Paul Murphy, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly and Defence Secretary Des Browne, all of whom are Catholics. If any of them defied a three-line whip they would at the least be expected to resign from the Cabinet, or be sacked.
But on Tuesday Mr Brown announced a U-turn and will allow free votes on hybrids, socalled saviour siblings and the abolition of the legal principle that 1VF doctors must have regard for a child's need for a father. Speaking at the launch of Labour's local election campaign, Mr 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. I have always said that although I attach huge importance to this legislation to save lives and helping to cure and treat diseaseswe respect the consciences of every MP as they decide how to vote."
Mr Brown's decision means, however, that there will not be a free vote on the Bill's second or third reading but only on amendments in the Report stages.
The announcement was given a cautious welcome by Archbishop Nichols. "The Prime Minister has recognised the importance of conscience," he said. "This matters greatly not only to Catholics but also to people of other faiths and those with ethical concerns."
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor also welcomed the news, adding that "clearly the debate on these important issues will continue both within and outside Parliament over the coming weeks and months".
But John Deighan, the Parliamentary Officer of the Catholic Church in Scotland, said the compromise "still leaves Labour MPs in a position where they may have to vote for something which they believe to be intrinsically wrong, since the free vote only applies to amendments to the Bill so at a later stage the Government will still compel them to back it".
Both he and Cardinal MurphyO'Connor urged scientists to pursue adult stem-cell research. This
does not kill embryos and has so far resulted in some 80 therapies whereas embryonic stem-cell research has failed to deliver a single one.
In the Lords, the Government imposed a three-line whip on each vote, ensuring the failure of all six attempts to amend the Bill by Lords who had moral objections to its contents. Normally, threeline whips are used when the Government faces a vote of noconfidence or a vital loss of tax revenue if a Bill is overturned.
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