Organ farms pose ethical minefield

Laboratories will soon be able to grow human hearts and other organs from tissue taken at birth from babies, American scientists have announced. Their pioneering work, though, raises fresh problems for moralists and politicians sprinting to catch up with science.

In the logical conclusion of that research, scientists in the UK, Japan and US are trying to develop an artificial womb which could sustain an embryo to its full term outside a human body. Already, a team at Juntendo University in Japan has used such a system to take a goat embryo from 40 days before birth to term. The first use would be for premature babies, they say.

Suddenly, the gap between what biological science can and cannot do has begun to shrink rapidly. While European MEPs will today debate a new law which could radically alter the laws over "ownership" of genes, a team of doctors at the University of Florida, Gainesville, is awaiting the outcome of yet another ground-breaking operation.

On Friday, for the first time, a paralysed man was injected with cells from aborted foetuses, in the hope that they will help repair his damaged spinal cord.

But even such pioneering surgery could soon become mundane, overshadowed by work now being done internationally by teams who intend to use tissue taken from human babies or foetuses to grow new organs such as livers, pancreases, blood vessels and even hearts in the laboratory, ready for transplantation. Such in vitro organs could be reality in 10 to 15 years' time.

But the accelerating approach of these medical and scientific breakthroughs is catching many people unawares, and exposing ethical and philosophical dilemmas - such as whether a foetus has rights, and how they can be balanced with medical help for others.

The spinal operation in Florida was conducted on a man suffering from syringomyelia-a painful and ultimately fatal condition where holes develop in the spinal cord. It was injected with foetal spinal cord tissues taken, with the mothers' permission, from foetuses aborted at between six and nine weeks. At that age, the nerve cells are still dividing; in adults, they do not, which is why spinal and brain injuries do not repair themselves.

The Department of Health said that in the UK, any use of foetal material would have to be cleared before treatment by the ethics committee of the hospital, adding it would probably be highly unlikely to be granted.

Peter Garrett, research director of Life, the anti-abortion group, said: "We oppose the use of aborted babies. We view the child in the womb as a person ... this is functional use of parts of a person."

But he admitted that the eventual development of an artificial womb will pose enormous moral questions.

For example, it could mean that an "abortion" might not end the viability of a foetus. "You would still have abortion, but it would be ending the encumbrance of the unwanted child to the mother," said Mr Garrett. "I think that it's going to change the whole topology of the pro-life and pro-abortion debate: there will be those who are against interference in the `natural' process of having a child, and those who are in favour of some things. It's going to look more and more strange."