Pressure on MPs to back genetic research

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The growing campaign against genetic research on human embryos has forced ministers to conduct intense behind-the-scenes lobbying of MPs and peers, aimed at persuading them to back the search for new genetic cures.

The growing campaign against genetic research on human embryos has forced ministers to conduct intense behind-the-scenes lobbying of MPs and peers, aimed at persuading them to back the search for new genetic cures.

The Government fears that moral opposition to stem cell experiments could mean defeat in crucial parliamentary votes that must take place before the end of next month. This would prevent researchers from seeking genetic treatments for thousands of people with incurable conditions.

Anticipating a backlash, which has been fuelled by Catholic bishops and other campaigners, Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper and Lord Hunt, her counterpart in the Lords, have written to all MPs and peers setting out arguments in favour of giving the go-ahead to the research.

The two have also held private meetings with more than 100 MPs, mainly from the Labour benches, to present the case for passing the new regulations on embryo research.

One-to-one briefings with the Government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, have also been made available to anyone with concerns about the issue.

Government sources said: "We do recognise some people will take a different moral view but there is an ethical case for doing this.

"The case for the regulations is extremely strong. I think a lot of people, when they look at the issues, see the potential impact the research could have for people experiencing very real and traumatic circumstances right now. That case is extremely strong and very powerful."

Ministers have also been contacted by pressure groups representing people with a range of diseases, including Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. The groups argue that MPs should support the human embryology regulations to help constituents with such diseases who could benefit from the fruits of stem cell research. "They have been starting to talk to their members and patients and get them to send in letters and contact their MPs and to explain the cases of individuals who are actually experiencing this," Government sources said.

The series of moves has been part of a concerted attempt to overcome moral objections raised to plans to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, so that stem cell research can be used for "increasing knowledge about the creation and development of embryos, increasing knowledge about disease or enabling any such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for disease".

Many parliamentarians feel the regulations are too broadly drawn, and claim the Government is being led by the views of scientists alone.

The scientists, working for government, in turn fear that the weight of moral objections will prevent the regulations from going through. One said: "I am genuinely worried that we won't win. We should win on the basis of the arguments. But how do we make the arguments? How do we overcome the moral and ethical objections? If we can't do that then my worry is we won't get it through." It is unclear how much opposition to the issue there will be on the Tory benches and in the House of Lords. But opponents from all political parties are likely to be implacable.

Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox feels that the debate on genetic research is being taken out of the hands of Parliament and dictated by scientists. "It is being left to scientists and judges to determine where the limitations lie and that is our job here in Parliament," he said. "We have not had sufficient chance to debate these issues. We need to debate the implications of the genome project and stem cell transfer in terms of the wider ethical issues that medical science is bringing forward. The Government has made its current position known without thinking through the implications of what it is saying."

Labour MP Gerry Bermingham said: "I hold fairly tough views on this. The fundamental argument is when does life begin: if you hold the view, as many do, that it begins at conception there is no way you can approve embryo research; if you do not, then I can see the argument. But that is going to be the row between the two groups."

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