Plans by a US-based doctor to launch a search in Britain for a surrogate mother to carry the world's first cloned baby was condemned by Britain's fertility watchdog yesterday.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said that Panos Zavos, a reproductive specialist who is flying to London tomorrow to launch his appeal at a press conference, would be breaking the law if he implanted a surrogate mother with a cloned embryo in Britain.
The authority said in a statement yesterday: "The Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 makes it a criminal offence, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and or an unlimited fine, to place into a woman an embryo created by any means other than by fertilisation."
Dr Zavos claimed in 2002 that he had created the world's first cloned embryo and was ready to implant it in a surrogate mother. He said he had "seven or eight" other couples "ready to go" and he was reasonably confident he would be overseeing the birth of the first clone by the end of last year. That deadline has come and gone without sign of progress.
Similar claims have been made by others, notably the Raelian cult, who said they had cloned several babies whose whereabouts and identities were never revealed. But Dr Zavos has the technical expertise to achieve his ends.
He is thought to be coming to Britainto generate further publicity for reproductive cloning, which has been outlawed in the US and Europe. Suzi Leather, the chairwoman of the HFEA, said yesterday: "It [reproductive cloning] is utterly wrong and against the law. My understanding is that he [Dr Zavos] is procuring women to experiment on them.
"All the work [on reproductive cloning] in animals indicates it is absolutely unsafe and causes great suffering. No woman could make an informed choice to take part in this because, if she knew the risks, she wouldn't do it."
Paul Rainsbury, the medical director of the Rainsbury Clinic - soon to announce the launch of an embryo-splitting programme in Britain - will be alongside Dr Zavos at the press conference. Embryo splitting involves taking half a human embryo, implanting it into the mother's womb and allowing it to grow into a baby while the other half is frozen and stored. Should the baby develop an illness, such as cancer, as it grows, the remaining half of the embryo can be thawed and allowed to develop to yield stem cells, which could be used in a treatment. The HFEA said that, under its code of practice, clinics were expected not to produce embryos for treatment by embryo splitting.