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Daily Mail banner 10 March 2008

Will Labour's Catholic ministers have the guts to follow their conscience over fertility bill?

Just what would it take for the three Roman Catholic Cabinet Ministers - Des Browne, Ruth Kelly and Paul Murphy - to tell the Prime Minister that their consciences matter more than their jobs, if the horrors within the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill are not enough to screw their courage to the sticking point?

Forced sterilisation of the unfit? Euthanasia? Slaying of the first-born?

The Bill raises fundamental moral issues on fertility and embryo research which should never be considered a matter of party politics and are an anathema to the Catholic faith.

labour ministers Des Browne, Ruth Kelly, Paul Murphy
Question of morals: Labour ministers Des Browne, Ruth Kelly, Paul Murphy

Yet Labour's Chief Whip, Geoff Hoon, has told this Cabinet trio - and another 15 members of the Government who are unhappy about the Bill - that they must not vote against it if they want to remain in their jobs.

The trio seem to have put up enough of a fight to be allowed to abstain. But since they believe parts of this Bill to be morally wrong, abstention should not be an option.

They should have the guts to take a public, ethical stand against secularist bullies who regard the unborn as of no account except as fodder for scientific research.

It will hardly have escaped these Cabinet Mass-goers that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has sent a pastoral letter to all his flock asking them to write to MPs about the "profound questions of human life and dignity" posed by this Bill.

"Many people of all faiths and none are deeply concerned by the moral questions raised by this Bill," he said. "Now is the time for our voices to be heard."

What is bothering the Cardinal and many other thinking people is that this Bill will remove the need for a father in IVF treatment, will allow the selection of embryos to create "saviour siblings" who can provide spare-part tissue for an older sibling and will legalise the creation of "human-admixed embryos" - a euphemistic term for "animal-human hybrids".

The decision that it is sufficient that children conceived through IVF should have no need of a father is typical of the New Establishment's contempt for the traditional family.

The lack of concern about destroying embryos if they cannot fulfil a medical need or once they've provided the necessary spare parts is par for the course, too.

But this new experiment of producing for research purposes embryos with an animal and human genetic make-up is another landmark on our way to a Brave New World.

This legislation, said Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently, "is gradually but inexorably moving towards a more instrumental view of how we may treat human organisms".

He was alarmed, as are many of us that, in the United Kingdom, it is increasingly taken for granted that it is fine to regard the human embryo as a technological commodity.

And now we are told that ministers are considering going even further by supporting an amendment allowing what are called "artificial gametes" to be used in IVF: this involves a method of creating sperm from embryonic cells that could theoretically result in a person being genetically both mother and father of the same child.

One of the mysteries of life under New Labour is that the beliefs of a majority of religious people were trampled on so comprehensively under the devoutly Christian Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism after leaving office.

An example, is the way in which Catholic abortion agencies were not exempted from equality laws that forced them to offer children for adoption by gay couples.

And it's equally mysterious that those beliefs are still under attack now Downing Street is occupied by a son of the manse who boasts of his moral compass.

Surely he, of all politicians, could have been relied on to reflect deeply about the ethics of life-creation?

Yet Gordon Brown appears to be relaxed about developments in genetic research. It is as if the concepts of slippery slopes or thin ends of wedges never occurred to him, as if he never read about the disastrous forays into eugenics taken by the Nazis.

Indeed, he brags that the United Kingdom is ahead of the experimental pack in embryology and stem- cell research and promises that it will run faster.

It is in this climate that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has not even bothered to wait for the new legislation to go through Parliament: it has already given licences to conduct animal-hybrid research.

We all know that this is a Government of little vision. But when it comes to this enormous moral issue, it is blind.

Geoff Hoon, in graciously permitting ministers to abstain, explained that "while I entirely respect the strong moral sensitivities of colleagues, there are also strong moral sensitivities in relation to research into a number of appalling diseases and conditions.

"I accept that the Catholic Church has a view and a role," he continued. "But part of the frustration is that there hasn't been the coverage about what is possible, what this [research] does and why we are doing it."

One of his Commons friends, Kevin Hughes, he confided, died of motor neurone disease. "I still feel his loss now. It's the most horrendous disease."

Indeed it is, Mr Hoon. A friend of mine died of it, too. But your argument is morally illiterate.

The point is not that those worried about genetic experimentation do not care about the eradication of horrible diseases, it is that they care about how they are eradicated.

I'm sure Mr Hoon would be the first to protest if someone suggested adopting the Chinese practice of executing criminals and harvesting their organs for the greater good.

What bothers those questioning the thrust of genetic research is that they think that scientists are as fallible as the rest of us and that human beings should be careful about playing God.

Over 100 academics - many of them scientists - wrote last week to The Times to say that, even though they had differing opinions about this Bill, they all agreed: that it "covers sensitive ethical questions relating to the beginning of human life and family relationships, and encompasses a range of novel issues, for example with regard to mixing human and non-human gametes."

They were concerned that, although in 1990 a free vote was allowed on the original Human and Embryology Act, this one was whipped through the Lords and now faces the same treatment in the Commons.

They said there should be no erosion "of the precedent of a 'conscience vote' on controversial bioethical legislation".

Such public pressure - along with David Cameron's decision that Tory MPs should have a free vote, and the rebellion in Cabinet by Miss Kelly and Messrs Browne and Murphy - forced the Government to allow the compromise of abstention.

But how squalid it would be for these three ministers to settle for this coward's way out rather than following their consciences by voting 'no' and encouraging others to do the same.

While they are at it, they could also help pass an amendment to reduce the time-limit for abortion.

In updating the seven new deadly sins for today's world, the Vatican this week included "carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos." In other words, the provisions of the bill are a sinful assault on the core beliefs of the ministers' religion.

Have the courage of your convictions, Ministers. You may lose your jobs, but you will gain our respect.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards