Cardinal adds to pressure for free vote over embryo bill

The head of the Catholic church in England and Wales has added to pressure on Gordon Brown to offer MPs a free vote on the government’s controversial embryo bill.

The new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will allow scientists to cross breed human and animal embryos in stem-cell experiments which could lead to new insights into Alzheimer’s disease, motor neurone disease or Parkinson’s.

And though the government has said the research could benefit millions, the prime minister is facing growing calls to offer a free vote on the proposals, with a number of Catholic Labour MPs in opposition to parts of the bill on grounds of conscience.

Speaking to Sky News, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, said: “I think Catholics in politics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions, so have other Christians, so have other politicians.

“There are Catholics who feel very strongly about this matter and I am glad that they do.

“Certainly, there are some aspects of this bill on which I believe there ought to be a free vote, because Catholics and others will want to vote according to their conscience.”

He added: “I don’t think it should be subject to the party whip.”

While Conservative party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg have offered their MPS a free vote on the bill, it is believed that Mr Brown could sanction his Catholic ministers against voting in opposition to government legislation, but with the assurance that the bill would still be passed.

Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s comment come as Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s leading Catholic, plans to attack the legislation in his Easter Sunday sermon and to describe the plans as a “monstrous attack on human rights”.

The embryo created by the research – through which human DNA is injected into a hollowed-out animal egg – is 99.9 percent human and 0.1 percent animal.