Government plans to permit further research on human embryos are due to be debated in the House of Commons on Friday, to the dismay of prolife campaigners and the head of Scotland's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Thomas Winning.

Scientists are urging the government to extend the scope of research that can be carried out on embryos and even permit cloning in the hope of finding cures for a range of serious diseases. These include leukemia, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.

"We need to grasp the opportunity now," said one of Britain's leading genetic researchers. "The technology gives us the potential to address some of the most severe diseases that we suffer from," Dr. Harry Griffin of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh told Newsroom. "That potential would be difficult to realize if the research opportunities were limited by law." The Roslin Institute produced the first cloned sheep, Dolly, in 1996.

But other experts in the fields of medicine and the law are equally adamant in their opposition. A leading commentator in the United Kingdom and the United States warned delegates at a conference on cloning in London this week that the issue touched "the salvation or damnation" of mankind.

"These technologies could end up destroying those they are intended to serve," argued Professor Nigel M. de S. Cameron, executive chairman of London's Center for Bioethics and Public Policy, which hosted the conference. He cited the outbreak of mad cow disease and the marketing of the thalidomide drug in the 1970s that resulted in the birth of deformed babies as examples of the results of "technology and venture capitalism driving the agenda. Unless we proceed with caution as we progress up this experimental curve, disaster awaits us," he contended. "Those who argue the inevitability of reproductive cloning are, sadly, probably right."

A leading judge in the field of medical ethics also urged caution over proceeding with human cloning. "It is the end of homo sapiens, and a new type of man—perhaps another ubermensch (superman)," warned Christian Byk, who is from France and is a member of the International Association of Law.

But the full-blown cloning of adult human beings is not on the House of Commons' agenda. There is no lobby in the United Kingdom to allow the cloning of children or adults. What is being debated is whether to permit the cloning of human embryos up to five days old and whether to allow further research on embryos to develop new therapies. Scientists say their intention is to find new ways of treating diseased or damaged tissues and organs as well as mitochondrial disease, where defective genes are inherited from the mother leading to possible blindness, epilepsy, or death.

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Scientists are pressing for the legalization of stem cell therapy, which requires certain "master" cells to be taken from human embryos at their earliest stages of growth. The prospect is that these could be transplanted into a patient and that they would then grow and repair damaged and diseased body parts, reducing the need for invasive surgery. The process always results in the death of the embryo.

Scientists are seeking permission to use existing human embryos for this purpose, possibly taken with permission from abortion or fertility clinics. But they want to go a significant step further—to clone human embryos in the lab and allow them to develop to up to five days old. The aim is to provide a ready supply of stem cells for therapeutic purposes, though as Griffin acknowledged, "it's clearly not therapeutic for the embryo."

Similar cells can be found in mature human beings, which would avoid killing an embryo. But these are available in far smaller quantities and could treat only a limited range of body parts, researchers contend. No adult stem cell has yet been found that could treat heart disease, for example, so scientists would rather cultivate embryos to harvest their stem cells.

Ultimately they hope to discover how to use a patient's own stem cells to create perfectly matched transplant material, thus avoiding the use of embryos. They argue that research must first be carried out on embryos to make that possible.

"Human embryo stem cell research is crucial to the development of stem cell therapies—at least until the programming of cell development is better understood," according to a statement from the Medical Research Council, which has its headquarters in London.

The Commons debate is likely to be emotional, and the stakes are high. "Most of us will pick up a major, debilitating, degenerative disease in our early 60s," Griffin argued. "If we can't research on the human fetus, then the British scientific community will have to progress with one hand tied behind its back," he told Newsroom.

The weight of medical opinion has swung behind extending the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act to allow further research. Therapeutic cloning has won the support of an expert group chaired by Britain's chief medical officer. It is also backed by the influential Royal Society of Medicine and the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which advises the government.

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After Friday's debate, Britain's Labor government has promised members of Parliament that they will be allowed to vote on the matter according to their conscience, possibly in December.

But as some medical ethicists point out, it is not just the potential for British science that is at stake. The potential of the human embryo used in research to develop through to adulthood would be obliterated.

"The embryo is a human being—one of us," Dr. Teresa Iglesias, a lecturer in philosophy at University College in London, told the London conference on cloning. "And every human being deserves that no deliberate harm should be caused to them."

Prolife organizations agree. LIFE, based in Leamington Spa, England, has dubbed the process of killing an embryo to save an adult "neo-cannibalism." And Scotland's Cardinal Winning has written to every Scottish member of Parliament urging a vote against so-called therapeutic cloning.

"The simple truth is that therapeutic cloning ultimately means killing those embryos which are raided for their cells," he wrote. "This procedure exploits human beings at the most vulnerable stage of their lives."

Copyright © 2000 Newsroom. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today recommended against human cloning in a 1997 editorial, "Stop Cloning Around." Other articles on stem-cell research include:

Tissue of Lies? | Latest stem-cell research shows no urgent need to destroy human embryos for the cause of science. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)
Thus Spoke Superman | Troubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000)
New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines Criticized | NIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists. (Jan. 28, 2000)
Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999)
The Biotech Temptation | Research on human embryos holds great promise, but at what price? (July 12, 1999)
Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999)

The Web site for Trinity University's Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity includes several areas on stem-cell research and a daily bioethics Weblog.

Other media coverage of the British cloning debate includes:

Cloning must not make us anti-science says PremierThe Daily Express (Nov. 18, 2000)
Britain's Blair Champions Genetic Research—Reuters (Nov 17, 2000)
Minister stands up for embryo research—BBC (Nov 17, 2000)
Cloning 'threat' to egg supplies—BBC (Nov 14, 2000)
Cloning backed by Royal SocietyThe Times (Nov 8, 2000)
U.K. Scientists Push for Embryo Clones— 8, 2000)
Call for cloning research—BBC (Nov 7, 2000)
Stem cell advance fuels embryo debate—BBC (Sept. 20, 2000)