BY ANNA ARCO
LABOUR MPS and members of the Cabinet are rallying together to demand a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill arguing that the ethical issues raised by the legislation should make it a matter of conscience rather than a party political Matter.
The MI-Party Parliamentary PmLife Group, which is chaired by Jim Dobbin, MP for Heywood and Middleton, has asked for a meeting with Prime Minister Gordon Brown in an attempt to push for a free vote for Labour MN and to establish a select committee for an amendment which proposes to lower the abortion limit.
"A number of MPs and ministers have been expressing their worries about the Bill and have been raising their concerns with the Chief Whip," said Mr Dobbin. "We've been working on a number of strategies, one of which is for a number of MPs to talk to him about a conscience vote."
The HFE Bill has posed ethical problems for Catholics on both benches, but while the members of the other parties are allowed to vote according to their consciences, Labour members have been forced to toe the party line under the pressure of a three-line whip.
Members of the party breaking the three-line whip can expect severe disciplinary action to the extent that they can, in theory, be expelled from the party.
Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly and Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy have been fighting for a conscience vote for Labour MPs, but will not be part of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group delegation going to meet the Prime Minister because of their positions as Cabinet Ministers.
According to a report in last week's Observer the Defence Secretary Des Brown, also a Catholic, is another Cabinet Minister thought to be concerned about the HFE Bill.
Mrs Kelly recently spoke to the Labour Chief Whip, Geoff Hoon, privately on the matter, asking that restrictions on Labour MPs be removed for a large part of the Bill.
An MP close to Mrs Kelly told the Observer that Mr Hoon had said that MPs who objected to the Bill should simply stay away when it was time to vote. Normally absence is seen as breaking the three-line whip unless it is under allowed under special circumstances.
Trouble spots in the Bill include removing a child's "need for a father" in IVF treatment and allowing the creation of human-animal hybrids, both of which have been roundly condemned by the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor said that the proposals to replace the word "father" with "supportive parenting" would radically undermine the role of fathers and the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland have urged Catholics to write to their MPs to also ask them to oppose proposals to create human-animal hybrid embryos for destructive experimentation.
At present Labour MPs have been exempted from the whip for any amendments which are tabled on abortion, but must fall into line for every other vote on the Bill.
Mr Dobbin said that the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group had intended to arrange a meeting with the Prime Minister before Christ mas but that it wanted Mr Brown to be able to give his full attention to the ethical dilemmas that the group raised.
Although abortion is not the primary issue covered by the Bill it has become part of the debate around it. On Monday Prof Sunny Anand, an expert on foetal pain from the University of Arkansas, addressed a group of MPs. His findings showed that it is highly likely that a foetus can feel pain before the 24-week legal abortion limit.
On BBC Radio 4's Today programme Prof Arland said "After 20 weeks of gestaton it is very likely that the foetus will feel the pain that occurs from the crushing of body parts or dismemberment or other invasive procedures that occur during foetal surgery or abortion. The foetus cannot speak for itself, so we have to deduce this from certain types of foetal behaviour."
Conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries, a former nurse, wants to introduce an amendment that would tighten the laws on abortion and reduce the limit for late abortions.
Last year MPs on the Science and Technology Committee conducted an investigation into the need for a reduction in the upper time-limit on abortions and ruled that there was no scientific basis for changing the law.
Mrs Dorries was unhappy with the Science and Technology Committee report because she felt that it was biased, with the proabortion lobby over-represented among those who gave evidence.
The Human Fertility and Embryology Bill is expected to go to the Commons this month. MPs will be voting on the abortion laws for the first time since 1990.