Church leaders clash over embryos

A LEADER of the Scottish Episcopal Church says Cardinal Keith O'Brien was wrong to call for a halt to hybrid-embryo research, claiming the work is the last hope of treatment for many in suffering.

Writing in The Scotsman today, the Rt Rev Robert Gillies, the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, says the view of the head of the Scottish Catholic Church is not the only legitimate Christian position on the controversial issue.

He says that, while he wishes crippling genetic disorders such as Huntington's and muscular dystrophy could be cured by conventional medicine, that was not possible.

He goes on: "It seems that if health and wellbeing is to come to sufferers, then the best option for them will come through stem-cell, including hybrid-embryo, research, given the current absence of any alternative."

His comments follow an attack last month by Cardinal O'Brien on the Westminster government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which would allow the creation of animal-human embryos. He described it as being "monstrous" and of "Frankenstein proportion".

But Bishop Gillies says he is "reassured" by the government's regulatory frameworks and its ability to keep research within ethical grounds.

He adds that, while there are those who have been "ennobled in their suffering", the pain and distress felt by the majority of individuals and their families meant he had to accept the science as necessary.

"Much as I may not like the thought of hybrid-embryo research … perhaps that is the way we must go to help those most in need of a Christian, loving response."

Professor Werner G Jeanrond, of Glasgow University's theology and religious studies department, said the embryology debate had been played out in Sweden along similar lines but had caused no long-lasting enmity between religious groups.

He said the bishop's position was close to that taken by some in the Lutheran Church of Sweden at the time.

"It means you take at face value the point made by many scientists that any research will alleviate illness," he said. "I don't accept that argument. It means that we can't take death seriously any more.

"When I put the question to a Swedish medic, he said 'Yes, death is the enemy we want to overcome'. As a theologian, I think this is ludicrous, because death is part of what makes life possible."

He added, however, that simply being against something because the Pope said so was not a strong argument.

Professor Sheila McLean, a medical ethicist, supported the bishop's beliefs. She said: "It seems to be two religious approaches: doctrinal, which is the Catholic Church, and the other, which can be broadly described as compassionate or Christian.

"That is in the sense that Christianity embraces the value that existing people have, and, unlike the Catholic Church, is less concerned about a fertilised egg having the same kind status as somebody who is existing."

The Scottish Catholic Church declined to comment.

HOW THE CLERICS MEASURE UP

The RT REV ROBERT GILLIES

&#149 Born 1957

&#149 Married with three children.

&#149 Educated: Edinburgh University, and Edinburgh Theological College. He was awarded his PhD in Philosophical Theology by the University of St Andrews.

&149 Career: Chaplain to the University of Dundee during late 1980s; curate to Christ Church, Morningside, Edinburgh and curate to Christ Church, Falkirk; rector of St Andrew's Church, St Andrews and then dean of that diocese. Was consecrated Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney last year.

&#149 Other positions held: He was an honorary philosophy lecturer at Dundee University from 1985 to 1994.

CARDINAL KEITH O'BRIEN

&#149 Born: 1958

&149 Educated: University of Edinburgh; St Andrew's College, Drygrange, Roxburghshire; Moray House College.

&#149 Ordained as a priest in 1965.

&149 Career: Assistant priest in Holy Cross; chaplain to St Columba's Secondary School; apostolate in St Patrick's, Kilsyth, then St Mary's, Bathgate; spiritual director to St Andrew's College, Drygrange; rector of St Mary's College, the junior seminary at Blairs, Aberdeen; Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh; appointed cardinal in 2003.

&#149 Other posts held: a maths and science teacher at St Columba's Secondary School.

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