(from theguardian.com 05/21/05) This appalling practice must cease, say people from left and right, religious and secular
The extraordinary news that Korean scientists have used cloning to produce stem cell lines, and that in the UK we have our own first cloned embryos, should focus our minds afresh on what may prove to be the biggest issue of the 21st century. In Britain, parliamentarians and judges have been drawn into the fray; bioethics played a big role in the US presidential election too, and even the UN has been forced to consider the ethics of biotechnology.
The crux of the issue is that whereas so-called “adult” stem cells are abundant, and are already being used to cure dozens of diseases, embryo stem cells can only be had by killing the embryo. Inevitably, this raises ethical questions – all the more because, while scientists have hyped their promise, the more honest among them admit that its fulfilment is far down the road.
The debate is not black and white. Even among those who believe we should use embryonic stem cells for research, there is an argument over whether we should get them from “spare” embryos from in-vitro fertilisation, or go further and create in-vitro embryos specifically for this purpose. Or should we go so far as to clone embryos for research – “therapeutic cloning”? But while these arguments are live all over the world, one person’s mind appears to be made up. Tony Blair wants the Brave New World of embryo research and cloning to begin in Britain. And, as the election has demonstrated, not one of the major parties has so far had the courage to try to stop him.
All the options – using “spares”, and creating and cloning embryos for research – are legal in the UK.
Last autumn, I was in London for a conference on cloning. It brought together people as diverse as Brigitte Boisselier of the Raelian flying-saucer-cult, which claims to have cloned babies, and Mary Warnock, godmother of British biotech policy. The audience thought Mme Boisselier eloquent but loopy, little guessing that her argument for baby cloning would soon be echoed by the Commons science and technology committee.
The rot started in the 1980s, when Warnock’s committee of inquiry came down by a whisker (9-7) in favour of making embryos for research. That narrow vote was one of many lost opportunities. The decision sparked a nationwide debate which convulsed the parliamentary process, and a bill sponsored by Enoch Powell was set to win a big majority to ban all research on embryos – until it was derailed by procedural moves.
Margaret Thatcher finally forced through her own law by offering a free vote on its central clause, set up the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to regulate the world’s first jurisdiction to sanction the creation of human life for the sole purpose of its experimental destruction. This practice is outlawed by the world’s first bioethics treaty, the European convention on human rights and biomedicine (the Oviedo convention in 1997). Unsurprisingly, the UK has refused to sign.
There is a case for permitting some research on embryo stem cells, and the US has led the way by funding work on existing cell-lines but not encouraging the destruction of fresh embryos. This compromise policy has been copied by Germany, and has come close to being adopted by the European commission. But in a spirit of bipartisan, insouciant, moral blindness, Blair has taken Thatcher’s policy to new heights by pressing cloning as a means of mass-manufacturing embryos to generate the stem cells. This appalling practice must cease, as conscientious people from left and right, the religious and secular, east and west, have made plain.
The UK is out on a moral limb. It is the only major western nation to take this position. The cloning news from Newcastle comes from experiments licensed by the HFEA; the UK is the only major western nation that would formally sanction anything of the kind. If Professor Alison Murdoch had done her experiments in Canada, she could face five years’ imprisonment; if in France, seven years. Such experiments are illegal in Australia, too, and in liberal Norway, and Switzerland, centre of the European drug industry. While there are other states with pro-cloning policies (notably China and Singapore), among western democracies the UK is all but alone. The Germans, who know a thing or two about unethical science, banned all human cloning back in 1990.
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