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Conscientiously objecting?

Opposition to the Government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which would allow the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research, has been widespread in the Christian world. 'It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity of human life than this particular bill' said Cardinal Keith O'Brien. O'Brien found support in the established church, including among bishops who had not seen fit to speak up when the issue was debated in the House of Lords.

Labour MPs who inhabit that world themselves have serious reservations, even some in the cabinet who were said to be prepared to resign, and it is these to whom Gordon Brown has offered a free vote on the Bill's most controversial aspects (including allowing scientists to create embryos with human DNA and animal cells).

Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of the bill, this solution is clearly less ethically suspect than one which would have allowed dissenting MPs to be 'on constituency business' at the time of the vote. Such a process might have allowed ministers to oppose the bill in private without making that opposition public, but all the words that describe such actions are distasteful.

Yet the prime minister's compromise has not altogether exempted MPs from this quandary. While they have a free vote on specific issues during the report stage, should they (as is likely) be defeated, they will be expected to vote for the whole package on the second and third readings even if its contentious aspects are included.

Third Way understands that this will be acceptable to the ministers who initially protested, because they would be able to say that they voted against the parts they did not like. That is, while certain consciences would be believed to have been kept clear, their practical use with regards to the bill is somewhat moot.