Britain moves to ban human cloning

A nation at the forefront of the new science tries to enshrine ethics in law

April 20, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - From the country that gave the world Dolly the sheep comes another landmark in the brave new world of science - the push to pass national legislation banning human cloning.

British Health Secretary Alan Milburn announced the initiative yesterday in a wide-ranging speech dealing with the promise, perils and ethics of genetics.

Though human cloning is already prevented in Britain by regulation, legislation would enshrine in law what many scientists, ethicists, religious leaders and politicians have long sought.

"At present in this country, human reproductive cloning is banned because the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority will not license it," Milburn said. "The ban is welcome, but I believe we need to go further to offer unequivocal assurance to the public.

"Human cloning should be banned by law, not just by license," he added in a speech at the International Center for Life in Newcastle in northern England. "The government will legislate in the near future to explicitly ban human reproductive cloning in the UK."

Such a bill would have to pass in both houses of Parliament and receive the assent of Queen Elizabeth II before becoming law.

Cloning of humans presents the scientific and medical communities with a wrenching ethical debate. But some believe that it is less a matter of whether an attempt will be made to create a human clone than when.

In the United States, federal funding is banned for research on human cloning. California, Louisiana, Michigan and Rhode Island have banned human cloning.

Last month, Severino Antinori of Italy and Panayiotis Zavos of the United States told a symposium in Rome that they plan to continue a project to clone humans, raising concerns worldwide.

With a tradition of centralized government, socialized health care and world-renowned research facilities, Britain has been on the cutting edge of the cloning debate.

At a laboratory outside Edinburgh, Scotland, Dolly the sheep became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. The announcement in 1997 sent a shock wave around the globe. Last year, the lab was the first to clone pigs; last week, it introduced the first cloned pigs from cells that had been genetically modified.

Governments are racing to keep up with the science.

Cambridge University scientist Martin Bobrow said the United States and Britain have dealt differently with the possibility of human cloning.

"On the one hand, there is an extremely rigid Washington view that no federal funding will exist," he said. "We are absolutely rigid that nobody can do anything in this country that hasn't been through appropriate ethical and licensing procedures."

Bobrow said the British public "hates the idea" of human cloning, because "it sounds scary."

"There is no reason to do it," he said.

Chicago physicist Richard Seed, a proponent of human cloning, expects that Britain and other governments will ban human cloning, but he said that "many more will not."

"I don't understand why human cloning upsets so many people," he said.

The British government's stance may resonate worldwide.

"The fact that Britain has a proposal and is likely to pass this law will influence the United States and other countries," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. He said the British announcement "is a good thing, because right now, human cloning is unsafe."

"There is far too much risk of a dead, deformed or stillborn person being created. Animal studies not only show that Dolly-style cloning is possible, [but] that it is very risky right now. That may change in the future, but certainly for the next few years I would favor the British law.

"The trick is to write these laws very carefully and narrowly," Caplan said. "Cloning is used all the time to grow cells. It means making something that is a genetically identical copy. A cell can be cloned. Your liver could be cloned. Human twins are cloned. So, you don't want to interfere with scientific research at the cellular level while you're trying to prevent human reproductive cloning."

In his speech yesterday, Milburn sought to set out the British government's course on genetics as he warned: "The terrible lesson of history is that science can be claimed for evil as well as for good."

He noted the "huge potential health gains" to be realized from genetic advances, but said, "until we address and allay public concerns, we will not gain public consent to realize the full benefits of genetic science."

Milburn announced plans to boost funding, expand genetics treatment within the National Health Service and to create four genetics knowledge parks to place Britain "at the leading edge of new genetics services and technologies."

He said that if a human genetics commission recommends a "temporary moratorium on the use of genetic tests by the insurance industry, then we will pursue it."

Milburn also said medical advances would enhance the National Health Service, Britain's prized yet financially strapped socialized medical system.

"Britain's system of socialized health care means citizens can choose to take genetics tests free from the fear that, should they test positive, they face an enormous bill for insurance or treatment - worse still, that they are priced out of care or cover altogether. Already in America, developments in genetics have stirred precisely these concerns.

"Genetic advances lay bare the fallacy that private health insurance is the way forward for our country," he said. "Genetics strengthens, rather than weakens the case for Britain's NHS."

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