According to this story in the U.K. Telegraph, Gordon Brown’s Labour government is set to push through Parliament a bill that would, among other things, “allow the creation of animal-human embryos—created by injecting animal cells or DNA into human embryos or human cells into animal eggs—to be used in medical research and then discarded.” There is, however, a problem: Three of Brown’s cabinet ministers—Des Browne, the Defence Secretary; Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary; and Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary—are refusing to vote for the bill because they consider the practices it permits to be immoral. All three ministers are Roman Catholics.
As the Telegraph story makes clear, however, there is no question of the bill’s not passing; there are, apparently, quite enough votes to ensure its passage, even without the votes of the Catholic ministers. The issue is whether the government can tolerate some of its ministers voting in accordance with their consciences but against government policy.
Now, I agree with Browne, Kelly and Murphy that the bill in question is morally unacceptable, and I admire them for opposing it. But I understand too that people who accept positions of trust in a government have a duty to support the policies of that government. Government would quickly cease to function if inferior officials were permitted to disregard the policy decisions of their superiors. That’s one reason why in the United States Cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president. The government’s bill in this case is unreasonable and immoral; but, given that it is the government’s bill, the government’s demand that the ministers support it is not at all unreasonable.
The Telegraph story says that the government is seeking some kind of compromise solution, and we should all hope that this effort succeeds. If it fails, however, there may be nothing for it but for Browne, Kelly and Murphy to resign as ministers of the Labour government, though they could remain as members of Parliament and vote against the bill. This, I say, would be very regrettable. But there is, after all, ample precedent in England for high officials resigning from office when the chief executive of the realm embarked on policies that were inimical to morality and true religion.