MPs to get free vote on cloning of embryos

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The Independent Online

MPs, rather than scientists, are to be given the final say over whether cloning of human embryo cells should be allowed for medical research.

MPs, rather than scientists, are to be given the final say over whether cloning of human embryo cells should be allowed for medical research.

Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer for England, will recommend on Wednesday that cloning should be given the go-ahead for the first time ever in the UK.

However, the Government will also announce that it will give MPs a free vote on the issue, a decision that will present Parliament with its most difficult moral dilemma for more than a decade. While many scientists support the need for new research, and point to its benefits in combating some diseases, religious groups and anti-abortion lobbyists are vehemently opposed to the idea.

Scientists claim there could be a medical revolution if they are allowed to remove pre-programmed stem cells from embryos less than 14 days old. The cells, which are capable of developing into any kind of tissue in the body, including nerves and organs, could be grown to provide replacement tissue to treat incurable diseases such as Parkinson's. If the embryos are cloned from one or more of a patient's own cells, it would solve the serious problem of transplant tissue rejection. Some experts have even talked of entire replacement organs being grown in the laboratory in the distant future.

As the law stands, scientists can only work with stem cells less than 14 days old to carry out research into understanding fertility, reproduction or congenital disorders.

In December 1998 two research watchdogs, the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, recommended that the law should be relaxed to allow therapeutic cloning for medical research. Last year the Government set up an advisory group to examine the issue, headed by Professor Donaldson, and ministers have been considering the benefits of therapeutic cloning. If the research is allowed, there is certain to be a proviso that human embryo clones cannot be transplanted into a woman's womb.

But for some religious leaders and anti-abortion groups, therapeutic cloning will never be acceptable. A spokesman for the pressure group Life said: "We are suspicious that the real reason they want to be able to do this is for reproductive purposes. We think they want to be able to clone an embryo, implant it and go ahead with a full pregnancy, then kill that human being for its heart and other organs to be transplanted."

He added that partially differentiated stem cells, which are able to develop into a confined number of different tissues, can be obtained from adults, so it was unnecessary to take stem cells from embryos.