Fertility team wants to use eggs from aborted foetuses: BMA to investigate ethics of breakthrough attacked as 'macabre and gruesome'

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PLANS by a team of scientists to use eggs from the ovaries of aborted foetuses in fertility treatment are being investigated by the British Medical Association ethics committee and by the authority which regulates fertility clinics.

Fleur Fisher, the BMA's head of ethics and science, said most people would be shocked by the notion of implanting eggs from aborted foetuses in infertile women, thus producing a child whose mother had never been born.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which at present bans such treatment, said the proposal raised serious ethical questions. Hugh Whittal, its spokesman, said issues to be considered included whether a woman undergoing an abortion could give legal consent for the use of foetal eggs. In particular, ways must be found to ensure pregnant women were not offered financial inducements to terminate a pregnancy.

A team of doctors and research scientists at Edinburgh University, headed by Dr Roger Gosden, have successfully performed the operation on mice. He is seeking approval from the BMA to start work with human foetuses and would need a licence from the HFEA.

The BMA's ethics committee has taken evidence from him and will make recommendations to the council and then publish a report for the regulatory body and for public consultation in about two months. The regulatory authority has also discussed the proposed treatment and will produce a report.

Anti-abortion campaigners are expected to lobby against the proposed treatment. David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill and a 'pro-life' activist, said it was a 'macabre and gruesome development'.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, greeted the idea with caution. She said: 'It may be technologically possible but it certainly wouldn't be permitted as things stand. There will be a very widespread debate about the ethical issues involved. There must be limits to the new technologies and to genetic engineering. We should safeguard the interests of children and stay on the side of caution.'

Using ovarian tissue from aborted foetuses would solve the acute shortage of donor eggs. Foetal ovaries are laid down from about 10 to 12 weeks and reach a maximum 5 million eggs at five months. By birth the number of eggs declines to 1 million. Women continue to lose eggs until the menopause.

Other foetal tissue has been used in medical treatment, for instance to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. But the use of foetal eggs raises different ethical questions because of the possible creation of life.

Dr Gosden's work has been known about for more than a year and doctors at the pioneering Bourn Hall fertility treatment clinic in Cambridge have been experimenting on developing the eggs from foetuses for about two years. The regulatory body has said it will refuse a licence to any clinic or researcher to proceed with implanting the foetal eggs in humans until after public consultation.

News that the BMA and the HFEA were examining the ethics of such research is the latest development in the growing controversy over the use of fertility and test-tube treatment. In recent weeks concerns have been expressed about older women being enabled to have babies. Revelations that doctors in Italy had agreed to implant a black woman married to a white manwith eggs from a white woman - because the mother felt a mixed-race child would face discrimination - caused further outrage.

The Bourn Hall clinic has agreed to implant an egg from a white woman into a black mother because of the shortage of black donors. Dr Peter Brinsden, the director, said using foetal tissue in fertility treatment would become publicly acceptable within five years. 'In vitro fertilisation 15 or 16 years ago was considered to be abhorrent. It is now commonplace. Ethics and opinions change with time.

'I think we should be prepared to make eggs and embryoes available for research into inherited diseases. In a few years, if people accept it, maybe we can go on to create life,' he said.

The genetics of race, page 12

James Fenton, page 12