Government lawyers and lawmakers were making determined efforts this week to close a legal loophole that effectively permits human cloning in Britain.
It follows a High Court ruling Nov. 15 that Britain has no laws governing the reproduction of human embryos using cloning technology, despite a 1990 act on embryology that had been touted here as a global first.
Fearful that unethical doctors could exploit the situation to carry out human-cloning research in Britain, the government has launched an appeal against the ruling. And yesterday, it was to introduce a bill into the House of Lords, Britain's senior legislative body, to explicitly ban the practice.
Under the 1990 act, embryos could be destroyed and created for some types of medical research. Last January, the act was extended to take into account scientific advances, stem-cell experiments in particular. It was specifically worded to allow cloning to create embryos for stem-cell research. Parliament and scientists believed that cloning embryos to reproduce a child remained illegal under the change.
But the ProLife Alliance, which opposes all forms of cloning, successfully exposed a loophole in the law, claiming it didn't really ban cloning.
The confusion over the law has created a dilemma for the scientific community: how to continue research on embryo cells while banning cloning for reproductive purposes. The first one is vital to find cures for degenerative diseases, scientists claim, while the latter is ethically objectionable.
For them, the efforts taken by the government represent the first serious attempt to clarify the separation between the two different types of research here in Europe and in the US.
In America, there is no federal law banning human cloning, according to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), an agency that licenses and monitors all human embryo research in Britain.
In Europe, there is a "mixed picture," says HFEA spokesman James Yeandel. "In Germany, all forms of embryonic research are prohibited. In France, embryonic research is theoretically permitted if it "benefits" the embryo. But that, in effect, is a ban.
Despite the legal loophole in Britain, Mr. Yeandel says the authority remains "proud" of the legislation in Britain. "We were the first in the world to introduce laws governing the creation of embryos outside the body [in 1990] and we are the first organization of its kind in the world."
He adds that unlike Europe, Britain is taking steps to clarify the situation.
"Britain is ahead of Europe in terms of what you can do here," says Ian Gibson, a member of the ruling Labour Party government. "You can't do therapeutic cloning [stem-cell research] in Europe. That's why Britain is attractive to scientists." Stem cells, which are found in early stage embryos, offer vital clues to curing degenerative diseases, scientists say.
But he added that no country in Europe has introduced legislation specifically banning human reproductive cloning.
As last week's judgment demonstrated, lawmakers are faced with a difficult task of interpreting the letter of the law when it can't keep up with developments. As Dr. Gibson acknowledged: "The whole area is a confused legal minefield." So far, all agencies have welcomed the attempts to clarify the law. As far as the HFSE is concerned, "it's a hole that needs to be plugged."
As HFEA spokesman Yeandel explains, the 1990 act was an attempt to clarify the law in response to the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, the first baby born through in vitro fertilization. The act "took a long time" he said. "We thought the job was done."
But the ProLife Alliance challenged the government's assurances that "live-birth cloning" could not take place.
"The United Kingdom has the most liberal abortion and embryology laws in Europe," saysthe pressure group's director, Bruno Quintavalle. "In violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, we are alone in allowing human beings to be created for destructive and experimental purposes."
Their tactic of forcing the government to act by showing that human cloning can take place appears to be working. Within hours of the court ruling, an Italian fertility doctor, Severino Antinori, told the BBC of his plans to come to Britain to carry out human-cloning research.
"It's a very serious threat," says Dr. Gibson, a former geneticist who now heads a state science and technology committee. "You can split an atom and create electricity, but you can also create a bomb. In science, somebody will always try something at some point."
The government announced it would appeal against the court ruling to ensure that stem-cell research is not hindered, and would introduce legislation that "explicitly" makes human reproductive cloning illegal.
"We need clear and unambiguous legislation that regulates therapeutic cloning, [which] has a promising potential for treating chronic diseases," Gibson said in an earlier statement. "The government should at the same time clearly and firmly ban reproductive cloning because of the many scientific, ethical, and political problems associated with the practice."
According to one source close to the government, legislation could be on the statute books "within a matter of days."
But it's more likely, according to Gibson, that it'll be in place by the end of the year.