Leading article: Neither the time nor the place

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The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was never intended to be a vehicle for debating the rights and wrongs of the abortion laws. This, though, was what happened because of a series of amendments put forward by MPs of various political persuasions.

The Government was quite right to find a way of shelving these amendments. The Bill, which has its third and final reading in the House of Commons next week, is simply too important to be placed at risk of sabotage in this way.

The Health minister, Dawn Primarolo, has said – rightly – that the debate over the Bill is of "profound importance" for the future of embryo research in Britain. Allowing amendments on, for example, extending the abortion law to Northern Ireland or cutting the number of doctors needed to approve an abortion would distract from the Bill's prime purpose. This is not to say that the law applying to abortion should not be debated, just that the time is not now.

The reason why the laws on IVF and embryo research had to be updated was that the existing 1990 Act had become seriously outdated. There have been significant new developments in embryo research over the past 18 years and the existing law had failed to keep up with the possibilities that had become available to medical researchers and fertility clinics.

Cloning embryos from skin cells, the creation of human-animal "hybrid" embryos, and the genetic diagnosis of embryos to create so-called "saviour siblings" were all unheard of 20 years ago. Even the definition of an embryo – created by the fusion of sperm and egg – has had to be changed as a result of new reproductive techniques, notably cloning.

One of the greatest advances has been in the field of stem cell research. Scientists are on the cusp of what could be one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of our age. This envisages the generation of embryonic stem cells from a patient's skin in order to treat some of the most intractable diseases, ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's.

It would have been a tragedy if extraneous – and emotive– amendments to the Bill had been allowed to interfere with its main purpose of allowing developments such as these to bear fruit.

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