The discussion paper will be issued by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission within the next few weeks. The commission, set up a year ago to advise the Government on developments in human genetics, will report to ministers on the outcome by the summer.
If research on human cloning won sufficient support, ministers could give the go-ahead for the first experiments to start in 1999. They would be monitored by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which currently licenses clinics for research on embryos up to 14 days old.
Despite claims by ministers that they are opposed to the cloning of human individuals they have never closed the door to research. In its response, published just before Christmas, to the report on cloning by the MPs select committee on science and technology, the Government said it was "not opposed to the principle of cloning techniques where research is being carried out on serious inherited illnesses".
The document comes in the wake of the international outcry last week over US physicist Richard Seed's announcement that he plans to set up the first human clone clinic in Chicago. Dr Seed, 74, claimed to have four infertile couples willing to undergo experimental treatment. But his plans were condemned by President Clinton and there were widespread calls for a worldwide ban on human cloning.
In his weekly national radio broadcast yesterday, President Clinton said scientific research must not be conducted in a "moral vacuum" and urged Congress to ban human cloning experiments for at least five years.
The World Medical Association urged doctors to boycott such research and the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, which cloned Dolly the Sheep, said the idea was unethical and unwise with a serious danger of abortions, abnormalities and infant deaths.
However, Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the Genetics Advisory Commission, told us: "We want to set before the public the truth of the possible benefits of the different forms of cloning and the potential dangers. The document will set out what currently happens and it will ask a series of questions. We want to do this before the science becomes a reality rather than after."
British science led the world in the field of genetic research and cloning could open up new areas which would bring new diagnoses and new treatments, Sir Colin said. He believes public revulsion is based on a misunderstanding of the process and its potential benefits and a failure to distinguish between different types of cloning. Embryos could be cloned for research, which is allowed on those produced by in vitro fertilisation up to 14 days, and human cell material could be cloned to produce tissue for transplant or repair purposes.
The consultation document, whose working title is Human cloning: what would be the implications? will consider the "ethical implications raised by the possibility of human cloning including the safety of the technique if applied to humans and ethical concerns raised by cloning in specific circumstances".
The cloning of embryos is specifically prohibited under the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act but the technique used in cloning Dolly is not. It involved taking the nucleus of a cell from one sheep's udder and inserting it into an unfertilised egg from a second sheep which was then placed in a third sheep's uterus. No embryo was present at the start of the process, although one was created.
Cloning Q&A, page 8