Ground-breaking new laws permitting the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research passed a crucial vote in the Commons last night after attempts to ban the technique were overwhelmingly rejected.
MPs voted by almost two-to-one to reject an attempt to ban all hybrid embryos using human and animal DNA despite claims that they would turn Britain into a "rogue state".
The Commons voted down the amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill by 336 to 176, a majority of 160. A second amendment to outlaw so-called "true hybrids" containing 50 per cent animal DNA was also rejected after a three-hour debate. A third amendment, which would limit the use of hybrid embryos, was also voted down.
MPs were offered a free vote on the issue of hybrid embryos, the first of a series of highly contentious issues in the Bill that crosses traditional party lines. Gordon Brown and David Cameron have both backed the technique as a possible route to treatments that could save millions of lives.
But MPs opposed to the proposals said the hybrid embryos were morally unacceptable and offered no guarantee of a medical breakthrough.
Three Roman Catholic members of the Cabinet were among a series of ministers who backed a ban. Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, Des Browne, the Defence Secretary and Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, all backed calls for a full ban on hybrid embryos and voted for moves by the Conservative front bench to enact a partial ban on "true hybrids".
Opening the debate yesterday Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, condemned human-animal hybrid embryos as "ethically wrong and almost certainly medically useless". He said: "There is no overwhelming, or indeed any large-scale body of scientific evidence to suggest that this research that does cross this ultimate boundary between humans and animals will actually cure anything."
Mr Leigh insisted that the medical benefits of hybrid embryo research were based on "exaggeration, misinformation and hyperbole". He warned: "In embryos you do have the genetic makeup of a complete human being and you cannot splice together a human and an animal." He said: "I'm not sure even my greatest political enemies would say that I was 30 per cent a daffodil and 80 per cent a mouse.
"I don't believe in my soul or my brain I'm 80 per cent a mouse or 30 per cent a daffodil. But I do think that we are special and, therefore, as the human race is special it is different from the animal race and I think that we should take this very seriously."
Gerald Kaufman, the veteran Labour MP, warned: "The question you ask is how far do you go? Where do you stop? If you permit the creation of hybrid embryos now what would you seek to permit next time?"
Mark Simmonds, the shadow Health minister, proposed a ban on so-called "pure hybrid" embryos containing half of the DNA from an animal.
But Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and a former senior academic biologist, urged MPs to back research. He read from a letter from a constituent whose daughter suffered from motor neuron disease, which described how the girl might be helped by medical advances from stem cell research.
Dr Gibson said: "I'm inspired by people writing to me out of the blue like that. I'm the last person to prevent our scientific and medical community trying to develop the kind of cures that help people just like that."
He said: "The reason you do science, the reason you do research, is because you have a hunch you have an idea, there is some previous work and you say 'I wonder what would happen if ...' and so on. That's how science advances."
Dawn Primarolo, the Health minister, said that hybrid embryo research offered a "valuable resource" for scientists. Both the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition voted against a ban on hybrid embryo research in last night's free votes.
Proposals to allow the creation of "saviour siblings" genetically matched to help seriously ill older brothers or sisters also passed the Commons. An attempt to block the practice was rejected by 342 to 163, a majority of 279, while another attempt by the Conservative frontbench to limit the practice to life-threatening cases was rejected by 318 votes to 149.
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