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Article
29 November 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Phoney debate about cloning

by John Gillott

Justice Crane's judgement in the High Court in London on 15 November 2001 that human embryos created by cell nuclear replacement - 'cloning' - do not constitute embryos as defined in the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was no doubt a significant victory for the Pro-Life Alliance, which brought the case.

A significant victory not simply for the obvious reason that it precipitated great confusion and a rush to outlaw reproductive cloning, but also because it might, in due course, force a reopening of the main sections of the 1990 Act - something that life-long anti-abortion campaigner Lord Alton and his associates have long dreamed of.

Whether that happens will depend on the outcome of the UK government's appeal against the court's ruling. In the meantime, the effect of the judgement was to place cloned embryos outside of the regulatory framework established by the HFE Act. Both reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning - the use of cloning to produce genetically compatible embryonic stem cell lines for therapy - were suddenly declared to be legal and unregulated.

Cue panic, or at least talk of panic. The spectre of cloner-in-chief Severino Antinori from Italy slipping across the channel to impregnate willing women in the UK was raised - to which the New Labour government responded with its very short-notice, and very short, Human Reproductive Cloning Bill. This Bill will make it an offence to place in a woman a human embryo 'created otherwise than by fertilisation'. Introduced into the House of Lords on 22 November 2001, it passes through the House of Commons today (29 November) and should be law by tomorrow teatime.

The philosopher Onora O'Neill (or Baroness O'Neill of Bengrave) expressed most clearly the slightly surreal character of some of the debate in the Lords: 'We do not - and did not - need to panic', she told the House, before continuing, without a pause, 'but', or 'however', 'I support the Bill'. Indeed, everybody from Lord Alton to fertility expert Lord Robert Winston lined up to support the Bill in an atmosphere of a phoney war (1).

The government has been accused of rushing ill-thought-out legislation through parliament, but this misses the point. In reality, the government - or rather its parliamentary draftsmen - had plenty of time to plan for the eventuality of an adverse judgement, and the legislation quite cannily achieves its specific aim of blocking reproductive cloning without blocking therapeutic cloning.

The main problem is a deeper one. It is not just the problem of legislation restricting what researchers can and cannot do, but rather that cloning as a whole has been allowed to become a boo-word, and therapeutic cloning in particular is something many involved had hoped could be sneaked through on the quiet. This latest development may well change that.

Only one UK group has hinted in public of really wanting to do some therapeutic cloning
It is a peculiarity - for its proponents, a strength - of the UK's legislative framework that no distinction is made between research using spare embryos left over from IVF treatment and research using specially created embryos. Instead, purposes are listed for which, with a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), research can be conducted. Changes to the law in early 2001 extended those purposes so that research to derive and study embryonic stem cells, as well as research to study embryonic development, became possible. Crucially, given the nature of UK law, this created the purposes for which cloned embryos could be made.

UK scientists have been rather sniffy about the work in human cloning published by the US company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). Ian Wilmut, who led the team at the Roslin Institute in Scotland that cloned Dolly the sheep over five years ago, described it as 'fairly lightweight', while his colleague Harry Griffin described it as more of a 'political and ethical milestone, and certainly not a scientific breakthrough' (2).

This might be true - but you could argue in response that ACT currently has some of the best cloners in the world, and that UK scientists have to date produced no human embryonic stem cell lines available in the public domain. So far just three UK clinics are licensed to generate embryonic stem cells under the terms of the 1990 Act and two more applications are being considered under the new research purposes - and nobody has applied for a licence to carry out therapeutic cloning research.

Indeed, I know of only one group that has made any hint in public of really wanting to do some therapeutic cloning. And this is where we get to the nub of the dilemma thrown up by the recent High Court ruling: if the government loses its appeal, scientists will not be able to apply to the HFEA for a licence, because therapeutic cloning will remain outside of its regulatory remit.

UK scientists and policymakers have taken a cautious line with therapeutic cloning, and now face a period of legal and regulatory uncertainty. This may extend for some while: amending the main sections of the HFE Act to cover cloned embryos is likely to take up a much longer period of parliamentary time than the legislation rushed through this week - and the government is aware that the pro-lifers are licking their lips in anticipation, preparing in detail their tricky, if transparent in purpose, amendments.

What is to be done? Well, one option would be to just push ahead with research outside of the formal structure of HFEA regulation. After all, it is legal now and was before the judgement, and scientists would continue to be answerable to their fellow professionals. Or would that be too American for our British scientists?

John Gillott is co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason, Merlin Press 1995. Buy this book at Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

Read on:

Stop stemming the research, by Stuart Derbyshire

Let stem cell research begin, by Toby Andrew

spiked-issue: Genetics

(1) See the Hansard Report on the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill

(2) Mavericks claim creation of many cloned human embryos, New Scientist Online News, 27 November 2001

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