Human embryo research approved: 'a sad day for civilisation'

 Last night's vote in parliament to allow British scientists to use human embryos for research has been met with shock by church and medical ethics groups. Peers voted by 212 to 92 to extend the type of research allowed on early-stage embryos - in effect opening the way for researchers to practise a limited form of human cloning. Peers opposed to the new regulations, which were approved by MPs last month, said they were being rushed through parliament and should be shelved until they could be considered by a Lords committee. As a concession to them, ministers agreed not to issue any licences to allow scientists to carry out this work for nine months. But after eight hours of stormy debate, the House agreed to back the new regulations and to set up a committee that would look at the issues in more detail but not delay the research. The government has pledged to take the committee's recommendations into account when it reports later this year. Supporters of the bill said that many diseases including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's could be cured if scientists can develop new ways to regenerate or replace damaged tissue. The best hope for this, they said, came from stem cells present in a growing embryo. Opponents said the ethical implications of stem cell research had not been thought through properly. A leading expert on ethics in the field, Dr Tom Shakespeare, said it was a worrying step. "We are very concerned about using embryos in this way, using them as a means to an end," he said. "There are actually things we can do with adult stem cells, so there are alternatives to this technology. "There are very many reasons why we are going too fast and should be much more cautious about this development." Cross-bencher Lord Alton, who proposed the defeated amendment, told peers in a passionate debate that he questioned the morality of treating the human embryo as "just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed". He insisted: "These are not trivial questions that preoccupy a few moral theologians. They are at the heart of our humanity." Lord Alton told ICN yesterday: "The strength of this defeat shows what we are up against. There were two very powerful vested interests at work during the debate. One was the medical and drugs research industry, the other was the extraordinary emotional argument that if we do not allow cloning to go ahead we will be responsible for the deaths of all these people from Alzheimer's and so forth. "In fact the scientific community is very divided over this issue. We have no business using human embryos for this purpose when alternatives exist." Lord Alton said: "The procedures used to stampede people into this vote were described by Lady Warnock as 'bullying'. One must stand up to bullies but in this case the government capitulated. Britain is in danger of becoming a pariah state over this. The United States has banned the use of embryonic stem cells for research. The European parliament has also banned their use for therapeutic or reproductive purposes. We alone have refused to sign the human and bioethics medical convention. " Dr Jack Scarisbrick, director of Life, said: "The entire debate was carried out in a very manipulative and bullying fashion. They played on people's emotions, regaling everyone for eight hours with quite hysterical speeches on the advantages on this research and telling them how they they would be responsible for suffering and death if they did not allow it to go ahead. " Dr Scarisbrick expressed concern that the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, who had earlier signed a joint statement objecting to the ruling did not attend the debate and Bishop Harris of Oxford abstained. He said: "Many did object initially, but once they were offered the committee - they just caved in. The notion of setting up a committee after the research has started is absurd." Dr Scarisbrick said: "This is a very sad moment for our civilisation. Who knows where it may lead?"

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