London (CNSNews.com) - On Monday night, Britain's upper house of parliament will have the opportunity to stop controversial attempts by the government to push through a measure allowing the cloning of early-stage human beings for research purposes.
In a free vote last month - members did not have to follow the party line but could vote according to conscience - the lower House of Commons voted two-to-one to allow research on human embryos up to 14 days old.
The unelected House of Lords is now all that stands in the way of the speedy passage of the law, which Prime Minister Tony Blair has personally backed.
A pro-life, independent member of the Lords, Lord Alton, has proposed an amendment calling for the legislation to be shelved while a special committee hears expert evidence on the pros and cons of the practice.
Many peers in the Lords are understood to be unhappy with the move. Some are opposed in principle to the cloning of human embryos, worried that it may eventually lead to a situation where human beings are designed in a laboratory and born as clones of the person whose genetic matter has been used in their manufacture.
Some reject the use - and subsequent destruction - of early-stage embryos from whatever source, for research purposes.
Then there are lawmakers whose objection focuses on the way the government has tried to push through the legislation - using a fast-track, unamendable legal order that requires only one reading in each chamber, rather than standard legislative procedure.
"It is precisely because we need to consider these things in detail that we shouldn't be stampeded into making decisions," Alton said Monday.
He said many members of the House of Lords were surprised that the government was prepared to allow a "full-scale parliamentary bill" on the banning of foxhunting, but on an issue "with awesome consequences" it was trying to rush through an order that had not been properly discussed.
"We should stop to gather our thoughts and ponder on these awesome issues."
The government member who will propose the measure in the Lords later Monday, Lord Hunt, said there were adequate safeguards in place to prevent scientists from going beyond the prescribed limitations into full-bore human cloning.
Hunt told the BBC he had no problem with the establishment of a Lords committee to research the issue, but only once the order became law.
He reiterated the argument used by proponents of embryonic research and cloning - that "stem cells" harvested from very young human embryos may present significant new ways of tackling degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Anti-cloning campaigners cite recent advances that point to the possibility adult stem cells may offer the same potential benefits, without the moral difficulties.
Monday's session promises to be emotive - some 40 peers have already indicated their intention to speak in the debate. Protests by anti-cloning campaigners are planned outside the chamber.
If the peers vote in favor of Alton's amendment, the government will not be able to reintroduce the order before the expected election in the spring.
The issue has attracted the concerned attention of the major religious communities in Britain. Last week senior Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders put their names to a joint appeal for the Lords not to pass the law without further examination.
The Catholic Church has led opposition to embryonic cloning and research, and Pope John Paul II has personally condemned it.
Earlier this month the Catholic University in Rome launched a project to store adult stem cells, from placentas and umbilical cords, as an alternative, "ethical" supply of cells for research and therapeutic purposes.
The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cormac Murphy O'Connor - whom the Pope elevated to cardinal at the weekend - said Monday the envisaged changes in Britain were "not an enhancement of our humanity but a diminishment."
Scientists who advocate "therapeutic cloning" want to be allowed to research the possibilities of making a clone of a sick patient, then harvesting stem cells - the master cells of tissue, skin and muscle - from the cloned embryo, to treat the patient.
They believe the patient's immunity system would be less likely to reject the newly introduced cells if they share his or her DNA rather than come from a different source.
See Earlier Stories:
\plain\lang2057\f2\fs23\cf0 UK Religious Heads United In Concern Over Human Cloning Proposals (17 Jan. 2001)
Adult Stem Cell Bank Offers Ethical Alternative (4 Jan. 2001)