UK Legalizes Cloning of Human Embryos

LONDON, United Kingdom, January 23, 2001 (ENS) - The United Kingdom has become the first country to legalize the creation of cloned human embryos, after the House of Lords voted last night to relax government regulations.

Pro life groups and religious leaders had appealed to the Lords to reject regulations that will allow scientists to clone human embryos up to 14 days old. Those appeals were in vain as the unelected upper house voted their approval by a majority of 120.

lords

The House of Lords. (Photo courtesy UK Parliament)
Cloning bypasses the normal reproductive process to produce genetically identical individuals that share the same DNA. An embryo is a fertilized egg up to eight weeks of development.

The 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act has limited British scientists to research on donated embryos up to two weeks old for studies on fertility, contraception, miscarriage and congenital disorders.

In December 1998, two research watchdogs, the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, called for the law to be relaxed to allow the use of early stage human embryos for stem cell research.

Stem cells have been called the body's "master" cells. Depending on the chemical signals they are given, stem cells can develop into any of the body's specialized tissues, such as blood, bone, organs, muscles and nerves.

In adults, stem cells are geared towards making a narrower range of tissues. But embryos are a mass of stem cells that evolve into a fetus by specializing to create a nervous system, spine and other features.

Scientists want to take stem cells from the embryo prior to this development and direct their growth to build any desired cell or tissue type for transplant.

This process, known as therapeutic cloning, could revolutionize the treatment of burns, spinal injuries and degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

An embryo cloned from a patient would yield stem cells which could be used to grow tissue compatible with the patient, overcoming the problem of transplant tissue rejection.

Despite the term "human cloning," last night's vote will actually make reproductive cloning of babies - whereby an embryo clone is produced and planted into a woman's womb - illegal.

The 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act did not actually ban reproductive cloning because it did not envisage the type of advances that allowed Dolly the sheep to be produced. British researchers gained worldwide attention in 1997 when they successfully created a lamb called Dolly, by cloning her from an adult sheep.

baby

A boy floating head down in the amniotic sac, which protects the rapidly developing embryo. The baby was removed from the fallopian tube of his mother's womb at six weeks after conception, because the growing child was about to rupture the tube, with fatal consequences for himself and potentially for the mother. (Photo courtesy Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child)
Though not banned, reproductive cloning was unlikely to have ever been permitted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates and licenses human embryo research.

During last night's debate, several speakers accused the government of trying to railroad its controversial legislation and others called for a select committee to be set up to look into the ramifications.

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. George Carey joined other religious leaders, including the Roman Catholic archbishops of Glasgow and Westminster, the Chief Rabbi and the President of the Muslim College, in urging the Lords to form a select committee before approving the regulations.

"These complex questions deserve to be examined in far greater detail than a brief debate on an unamendable order would permit," they said in an open letter.

The Lords were allowed a free vote on the issue, unfettered by party allegiances.

Lord Alton tabled an amendment calling for a Lords select committee to look at all the issues and report back before the regulations were approved. This was defeated by 212 votes to 92.

The Lords agreed to another amendment, which approved the measure but which also set up a select committee to look into the issue afterwards.

Lord Hunt urged peers to consider the significance of stem cell research "to those people who shoulder the burden of these terrible diseases, their families and friends." But Lord Alton warned against miracle cures.

"Since 1990, when miracle cures were promised for 4,000 inherited diseases, between 300,000 and half a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon," said Lord Alton. "There have been no cures, but our willingness to walk this road has paved the way for more and more demand."

The UK's Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child called cloned human embryo research destructive and criticized the new regulations.

Carey

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey. (Photo courtesy Archbishop of Canterbury)
"It is absurd that a select committee should be expected to report after the passage of the very measure which it is supposed to examine," said society spokesman Anthony Ozimic.

"This government has been totally impervious to the ever-growing protest at the way it has rushed its proposals through parliament.

"All the major religious leaders in this country, scores of European politicians, many scientists and countless members of the public urged the government not to break its promises of a thorough, open scrutiny of human cloning.

"Research on cloned embryos will involve the creation of human beings who will be plundered for their cells and be killed in the process. It is also a step on the way to allowing cloning for reproductive purposes."

In a free vote on December 20, 2000, members of Parliament in the UK's lower house, the House of Commons, voted by a majority of 192 in favour of the new regulations.

The government has agreed not to issue any licences for research under the new regulations for nine months.