Many pro-lifers pointed to the potential offered by "adult" stem cells. These are more mature stem cells, not necessarily derived from adults, and could be obtained for example from placentas, umbilical cords, or bone marrow and would promote the helpful research without killing unborn children in the process.
London, England -- December 2000 -- In what proved to be an emotional debate, British lawmakers approved a government move to extend current legislation to allow research into the use of human embryos as a source of "stem cells."
Scientists want permission to kill unborn children- either left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment or cloned in a laboratory - for the special cells which form the building blocks of tissue, skin, blood and muscle. They believe these stem cells could be used to help treat a serious disorders.
Both sides engaged in considerable lobbying. Those opposed to the draft regulations include pro-lifers who condemn stem cell research because it involves killing unborn children, anti-cloning campaigners, church leaders and some politicians. They say alternatives are available to obtain stem cells without using human embryos.
Forty-eight members of the European Parliament wrote an open letter to the British government, criticizing its attempt to authorize the research despite considerable opposition from the European Union.
Backers included the bio-technology industry, and the 120,000-member British Medical Association, which urged lawmakers not to oppose a move it said could benefit thousands of ill people.
Members of parliament were allowed a free vote on the matter. Members voted more than 2-1 for the cloning/stem cell research plan. Tuesday's vote passed by a 366 to 174 margin.
Conservative Party health spokesman Dr. Liam Fox, accused the government of trying to rush through the regulations with "indecent haste," without allowing sufficient time for debate.
In a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Fox wrote: "That you should leave less than four working days between publication of the government's guidelines and a final parliamentary decision on such an important ethical and moral subject as this will be seen as deeply insulting by large numbers of people ..."
Since 1990, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act has allowed licensed research using human embryos up to 14 days old, only for strictly limited purposes related to infertility. The new regulations would amend the law so that unborn children in their early stages of development could also be used in research into non-congenital diseases, before being killed
Although "spare" embryos from IVF treatment are available, scientists also want to be able to clone embryos, by using a patient's own genetic material, because they believe the cloned embryos would provide replacement tissue that is less likely to be rejected by the patient's body.
Anti-cloning campaigners argue that once cloning is permitted for limited purposes, "reproductive" cloning of a human being who will subsequently be born is an inevitable later step.
The amendment under consideration did not give lawmakers the opportunity to vote on the cloning issue itself.
"If MPs say yes to embryo stem cell research they will automatically allow cloned embryos, without having debated it," noted Dr. Donald Bruce, from the Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland.
A number of MPs called for more time for the debate. Conservative lawmaker Edward Leigh told parliament last week that that matter should have been dealt with by primary legislation and not by being pushed through in a "rushed and chaotic way."
Many pro-lifers pointed to the potential offered by "adult" stem cells. These are more mature stem cells, not necessarily derived from adults, and could be obtained for example from placentas, umbilical cords, or bone marrow and would promote the helpful research without killing unborn children in the process. Proponents argue that adult stem cells could offer the same benefits as embryonic ones, while avoiding the ethical and moral difficulties.
"We believe that the procedures that are envisaged will inevitably lead to more widespread abuse of human embryos, and the research can be pursued through other means, such as by using adult stem cells," said Paul Tully of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.
"The amendments to the Act would allow any research into a serious disease to be conducted. That would greatly open up the scope for the arbitrary destruction of human embryos."
Pro-life leaders hope the House of Lords will reverse the Parliament's decision.
John Smeaton, SPUC national director, said: "Today's vote is deeply disturbing. It is a sad day for ethical standards in science and respect for innocent human life in Britain. This country has cast itself into uncharted ethical waters. It has also broken ranks with European political opinion, which is squarely opposed to all forms of human cloning."
However Mr Smeaton held out hope, saying: "We feel that this result is due to the insufficient time for debate given to MPs to consider the profound issues involved. The House of Lords should give this matter deep consideration and should reject the statutory instrument when it is laid before them."
In their open letter, the 48 Euro-MPs said: "Many of us are doctors, scientists and former ministers. We all believe that we need new treatments for patients suffering from such conditions as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, but we think the government is wrong. There are equally promising scientific alternatives that are ethically acceptable, such as adult stem cell research. We strongly urge MPs to vote against the government's proposals."
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who waded into the ethical minefield of stem cell research last month, strongly backs the research -- which he said was key to maintaining Britain's position as Europe's leader in biotechnology. Outside parliament a dozen protesters, wearing white laboratory-technician coats and identical Tony Blair masks, urged MPs to "Vote no to Cloning."
"For the first time we are saying to the scientific community that we shall create cloned human beings," one Conservative MP warned.
In a message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, released early by the Vatican, Pope John Paul II warned against the "irresponsible practices of genetic engineering, such as the cloning and use of human embryos for research, which are justified by an illegitimate appeal to freedom, to cultural progress, to the advancement of mankind."
"When the weakest and most vulnerable members of society are subjected to such atrocities, the very idea of the human family, built on the value of the person, on trust, respect and mutual support, is dangerously eroded," he said. "A civilization based on love and peace must oppose these experiments, which are unworthy of man."
The Pope is understood to have Parkinson's Disease and could benefit from the research.
Source: Cybercast News Service, Reuters, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; December 19, 2000. Provided by: The Pro-Life Infonet, a daily compilation of pro-life news and information. To subscribe, send the message "subscribe" to: infonet- email@example.com. Infonet is sponsored by Women and Children First (http://www.prolifeinfo.org/wcf). For more pro-life info visit http://www.prolifeinfo.org and for questions or additional information email firstname.lastname@example.org