Britain is poised for what promises to be a lively and possibly angry national debate, after the government on Wednesday backed a proposal to allow limited cloning of human embryos.
The move, which would permit scientists to run "therapeutic cloning" experiments aimed at finding new cures for disease, is bound to put pressure on Washington to let federal funds be used for embryo research.
Members of Parliament will vote this fall on whether to change laws on embryo research, currently restricted to the treatment of infertility. The ruling Labour Party's large majority in the House of Commons appears to guarantee passage. In a rare move, however, the government said Parliament members will be allowed to vote "according to conscience," rather than toe the party line. Liam Fox, spokesman on health issues for the opposition Conservative Party, said he would vote against the plan, noting there was "genuine and deep-rooted political unease about many of the medical techniques we can now employ."
The latest proposals would maintain a ban on cloning entire human beings, but already there are signs that the issue will become a political football as anticloning groups line up against recommendations by Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer. Professor Donaldson on Wednesday announced that, after a year's study, an expert panel had decided in favor of experiments using human stem cells to develop what some scientists are calling "body repair kits." The British government immediately endorsed its view.
As many as 200 stem cells are present in the human embryo when it is only days old. Scientists believe these cells have potential to develop into almost any kind of body tissue, and that they could be used to treat degenerative diseases as well as to generate replacement organs.
"Stem-cell research opens up a new medical frontier," Donaldson said. "It offers enormous potential for new treatments for chronic disease, injuries, and the relief of human suffering."
But the government's plan is being greeted with dismay by anti-abortion and religious groups that maintain such research is unethical and unnecessary.
Enthusiasm for stem-cell research is being fueled by recent successes in the field, as well as growing unease over the use of animal organs as replacements for human organs diagnosed as diseased. On Tuesday, scientists in Philadelphia and New Jersey were reported to have produced human nerve cells using stem cells from bone marrow from adults. Also this week, researchers at Scotland's Roslin Institute, where Dolly the sheep was cloned, abandoned work on using genetically modified pigs to create organs that might be used to make up for the worldwide shortage of human donors.
The California-based company Geron Bio-Med, which has been funding the Roslin experiments, said there were concerns that unknown viruses could be passed on to humans from pig organs. But the Roslin Institute said experiments were ending for "purely commercial reasons."
In the US, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission last year recommended that the federal government should fund stem-cell research and the production of cell cultures. But President Clinton distanced his administration from the recommendation. He ruled out federal funding for the creation of human embryos for research, noting that research in the private sector was continuing.
In Britain, human embryos up to 14 days old already are used for fertility research. The Donaldson proposals, if voted into law, would allow stem cells to be taken from embryos within the same time frame.
Lord Winston, a British pioneer in "test tube" baby research, concedes that supporters of the plan "are going to have a fight on our hands." He says there are "so many possibilities with this kind of research, that it would be rather foolish to ban it at this stage."
As patient groups, medical charities, and leading scientists hailed the proposal, it drew bitter attacks from anticloning groups. Scotland's Cardinal Thomas Winning, chairman of the bioethics committee of the Catholic Bishops of Great Britain, said, "Obtaining stem cells from a human embryo is morally wrong because it involves the destruction of a human life. Human life is inviolably sacred."
Martin Casey of Right to Life said therapeutic cloning was being "offered as a panacea to cure a whole range of serious conditions, without proof that this method is any more likely to produce results than the ethically and morally more responsible route of using adult stem cells." Stem cells are present in adults, but researchers say they are few in number and more difficult to work with than cells taken from a human embryo.
If such work goes ahead, it will be under tight guidelines. Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) would grant licenses and monitor all research. People whose eggs or sperm are used to create the embryos would have to give specific consent.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society