Sarah Hall and Tim
Tuesday January 23, 2001
The government won a controversial House of Lords vote allowing new research on human embryos last night. Peers backed the government-backed motion by 212 to 92 in a free vote.
Ministers had launched a last-minute attempt to ward off a cross-party defeat in the Lords that would have scuppered its plans to extend the law to allow the research.
Earlier, as 40 peers lined up to debate whether to approve a change they claimed they had been bullied into, the government tried to placate them by promising to back an amendment accepting the move but allowing it to be scrutinised in a select committee.
The concession means that, although licences for the new research could be applied for from as soon as January 31, when the regulations come into force, they would not be not be issued until the select committee reports back.
The government would also be likely to backtrack if the committee ruled against it. "It would be very embarrassing for them, if they gave the committee their approval and then went against it," a government source said.
The 11th-hour move by the junior health minister, Lord Hunt of King's Heath, came in the face of extensive opposition by a cross-party coalition of peers - and pressure from church leaders - who claimed that the government's attempts to force through an unamendable legal order on the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was "undemocratic" on such an important moral issue.
The free vote followed a decision in the Commons last month to back an extension of the act, which currently allows research on human embryos up to two weeks old, known as stem cells, if it concerns research into fertility, contraception or congenital diseases. The change to the act would permit unused embryos to be used for research on other diseases. In theory, stem cells derived from embryos could be used to help in Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or other neurodegenerative illnesses.
Many research groups and biotech companies see stem cells as possible treatments for diseases that are now incurable, and charities supported by people with muscular dystrophy, diabetes, and Parkinson's, among many other diseases, have backed a series of government-appointed groups endorsing the use of embryonic stem cells in this way.
But the issue has also proved controversial, prompting accusations of eugenics and fears that this could prove the start of a slippery slope towards human cloning.
Last night Lady Warnock, who chaired the original inquiry into human fertilisation in the 1980s, said: "The word cloning sends shivers of horror down the spines of the British public."
Lord Alton, who brought yesterday's amendment calling for no order to be passed until a select committee had a chance to report back, said: "When the minister told the House of Commons a pre-14-day-old embryo had the power to facilitate cures to mankind's human misery, it simply underlined to me that, even at this early stage of development, we are not dealing with something inconsequential," he said.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001