By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
LONDON, May 19 -- British lawmakers voted Monday to allow the use of animal-human embryos for research after a national debate that pitted religious leaders who called it unethical against the prime minister and scientists who said it would help cure disease.
Last month, scientists at Newcastle created part-human, part-animal embryos for the first time in Britain. An attempt Monday night to ban the process, during consideration in the House of Commons of the first major revisions to embryo research laws in a generation, failed overwhelmingly on a vote of 336 to 176.
The overall bill, argued Prime Minister Gordon Brown, would enable lifesaving research that could help people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases. He said in an article published in the Observer newspaper Sunday, "I believe that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures."
The bill would allow scientists to continue injecting human DNA into cows' eggs that have had virtually all their genetic material removed, as well as other hybrid embryo processes for stem cell research. Scientists say the embryos would not be allowed to develop for more than 14 days.
Hundreds of British scientists and medical organizations support the process and say it is necessary because of a shortage of human eggs and embryos for research.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, a leading figure in the Catholic Church, had described the research as a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life." He said the bill would allow experiments of "Frankenstein proportion."
Edward Leigh, a Parliament member from the opposition Conservative Party who sought the ban, said "no other country" had laws allowing this type of research. It tears down the "ultimate boundary between human and animal," he said.
Many other countries have banned creation of hybrids, he said: "In these terms, in terms of embryology research, we will almost be like a rogue state." He added, "In many ways we are like children playing with land mines, without any concept of the dangers of the technology."
Three of Brown's cabinet members -- Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy -- voted for the ban.
Lawmakers also voted late Monday to support the government's plans to allow "savior siblings." This authorizes the screening of embryos for genetic characteristics in cases in which a parent is seeking a child in order to help a diseased older child in need of tissue donation.
On Tuesday, the House of Commons is to consider what would be the first changes to British abortion laws since 1990. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, supports lowering the current 24-week limit for abortions, as do several cabinet members in Brown's ruling Labor Party. Lawmakers are to decide whether to keep the current limit or lower it to 22, 20 or 16 weeks.
A final vote on the package is expected in coming weeks.
The idea of blending human and animal DNA to make "chimeric" embryos for research has long been contentious in the United States, where such experiments are legal if conducted without public funding.
In April 2005, the National Academies -- chartered by Congress to advise the nation on matters of science -- released a report affirming that scientists should be allowed to create such entities if the experiments are approved by special review boards. The advisers came down against the creation of human-monkey or human-ape embryos, as well as experiments in which a human-like brain might develop in a non-human animal.
Legislation introduced in the Senate and House would ban the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos even with private monies -- a move that has raised concerns from scientists and patient support groups in part because it would criminalize an entire branch of biomedical research.
In November, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) introduced the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act, which would amend the federal criminal code to penalize anyone who creates or attempts to create an embryo with human and non-human tissue. It has 18 co-sponsors, including presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.). In April, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced a companion bill.
Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, applauded the British move, saying it "will move science forward by explicitly allowing some research while perhaps bringing some comfort to the public because it will be well overseen."
Staff writer Rick Weiss in Washington contributed to this report.