Leading article: We should not be afraid of controlled human cloning

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The Independent Culture
THE EMOTIONS raised by human "cloning" are predictable, and have been in play again following the expert recommendation that scientists should be permitted to clone human embryos in the very early stages of development. Critics complain that an important principle will be breached; for the first time, human beings themselves will be produced outside the normal course of sexual reproduction, raising the possibility, albeit distant, that scientists could raise identical humans to adulthood.

Authorising such experiments on human embryos would indeed be a momentous step, which no amount of re-naming of the subject will disguise. The Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) employ new terminology to make their case. Cell Nucleus Replacement is the term scientists use for cloning embryos less than 14 days old; but this will indeed mean that human beings, albeit embryonic, will have been cloned.

We should not be afraid of this step. We do not, in any case, treat embryos as we do human beings after birth: limited experimentation is already legal within 14 days of fertilisation, and this latest development holds out far greater medical benefits than the types of experiment that are already allowed.

If doctors in the future were able to clone organs from our bodies, the rejection of transplants might be averted. If "harvesting" brain cells could replace cells damaged by disorders such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, much more pain and misery would be averted.

These are the hopes of scientists working on cloning embryos, since if they can clone the so-called "stem cells", the parents of all future cells in the body, they may learn how to govern the growth of those cells. Ministers should not deny the alleviation of human suffering via embryo research, a principle that has already been conceded, because of some inarticulate public unease.

What the public object to is the threat of reproductive cloning, whereby human beings would be duplicated. Yesterday's report rules this out, separating the process of repairing damaged tissues from the morally repugnant threat of reproducing ourselves. It is true that a cloned embryo could in theory grow into a person similar to the "parent" embryo, if implanted into a human womb; but legislation needs to respond to technological advance, and distinguish therapeutic research from reproduction.

New scientific developments always make us uneasy, challenging our views of right and wrong. But if scientists can cure diseases blighting millions, then they should be allowed this limited freedom to clone human embryos, just as they would clone animal cells. The reality is that the clock cannot be turned back, nor the future averted.