Today’s announcement that the British Prime Minister is ready to compromise and have a free vote on parts of his government’s embryo research proposal is disappointing.
Britain has traditionally taken a much broader view of stem-cell research than, say, the US. So, for Gordon Brown to yield under the pressure from Catholic MPs, who had threatened to step down if a vote was not held, is nothing short of a step backwards.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Bill has to do with the generation of “cybrids” or “admix” embryos generated by injecting a human nucleus into an animal egg. Critics of the Bill cite ethical concerns. For example, Cardinal Keith O’Brien (Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh) stated that “It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular bill”, and that the Bill could lead to experiments of “Frankenstein proportions”.
Needeless to say, supporters of the Bill have urged the Catholic church to become more familiar with the facts before making such strong statements. In fact, if you look at what a cybrid really is and realize that it’s something that may or may not even be successful, the alarms set off by opponents of the Bill seem rather out of proportion. (See this correspondence from MIT’s Richard Hynes that we published some time ago, in which he clarifies the terminology and dismisses some of the most erroneous concerns about the generation of chimeras, hybrids and cybrids.)
Clearly, the Prime Minister’s decision to compromise is political, and he sounds confident that the Bill will pass as intended despite the objections from the rebel MPs. Hopefully his gamble is correct, and we don’t have to live through another case of science taking a backseat to religion.