Ban on creating human clones must be made airtight, MPs say

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MPs have called an urgent meeting today to clarify whether British law needs to be tightened to close a loophole that might allow the creation of human clones.

The cross-party Science and Technology Select Committee will today ask representatives of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to clarify the position. Under the HFE Act, which became law in 1991, cloning human embryos is banned. But the technology used to create Dolly the sheep, a clone of an adult sheep, did not use an embryo. It used an unfertilised egg cell and the nucleus of a normal cell.

That leaves open the possibility that somebody might be able take cells from an adult and insert them into unfertilised egg cells and try to produce a clone. If the cells were taken with consent from an adult woman, she might also provide the egg cells, opening up the odd possibility that somebody could lawfully clone themselves.

The HFEA's confidence was dented by the recent decision of the Appeal Court to overturn its ban on the use by the widow Diane Blood of sperm taken from her husband while he was in a coma. Although the Act had been thought watertight, it was breached there. MPs fear something similar could happen with cloning.

"It's a legal question that we can get out of the way by talking to them," said Dr Jeremy Bray, a Labour member of the committee yesterday.

Tomorrow, the committee will question representatives of the teams who did the breakthrough research at the Roslin Institute and PPL Therapeutics in Scotland.

Despite the brief period remaining until Parliament is dissolved for the general election, the committee plans to rush out a report on cloning. "We had to move quickly," said Dr Bray.

The reverberations from the Scottish work continue to spread. President Bill Clinton yesterday banned the use of US government funds for human cloning experiments, warning that humanity should "resist the temptation to replicate ourselves."

President Clinton asked for a voluntary moratorium on human cloning experiments in the US, at least until the legal and ethical issues can be sorted out. Since privately funded scientists are not covered by his directive, he said only a voluntary moratorium would ensure ethical issues are fully debated.

Researchers in Oregon who last year cloned monkey embryos said they had no desire to reproduce a human.

Mr Clinton said there was a need to resolve the desire to use cloning to cure disease "without raising the kind of ethical implications that, in effect, we're in the business where people are trying to play God".