Designer-baby rules 'should be relaxed to save more siblings'

MPs and peers argue for wider use of embryo selection
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Indy Politics

Strict rules permitting the birth of so-called "sibling saviours" should be relaxed, a powerful parliamentary committee will say this week. The relaxation could lead to greater numbers of designer babies being born in order to save the lives of living brothers and sisters.

The special selection of embryos chosen for their genetic match to brothers and sisters is currently allowed if it leads to a cure for a sibling suffering from an otherwise fatal illness. Doctors have the ability to take stem cells from the umbilical cord or bone marrow of babies who are genetic matches to provide life-saving transplants for the sibling.

But an influential committee of MPs and peers will argue that the selection of matching embryos should not be restricted to cases of life-threatening illness and should take into account developments in stem-cell research. They want scientists to be able to use tissue matching and embryo selection if it can help a sibling with a condition that is serious but not immediately likely to prove fatal – such as sickle-cell anaemia.

The committee, set up by the Department of Health to advise ministers on a new fertility law, has taken evidence from dozens of experts and will help shape the draft legislation to be debated by Parliament later this year. But critics fear it will open the floodgates to "designer babies". Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said it was wrong to create babies to provide medical treatment for other family members. She said: "This is putting one human life at the disposal of another."

A number of "sibling saviours" have already been sought by parents in Britain. Raj and Shahana Hashmi fought through the courts for the right to use the embryo-screening technique. They wanted a child who was an exact tissue match for their son, Zain, who suffers from thalassaemia, a rare blood disorder, but their attempts to have a matching child have proved unsuccessful.

The joint Commons and Lords report, published this week, is also expected to recommend that MPs should be able to vote according to their conscience on whether embryos should be selected by gender. It is likely to oppose an outright ban on choosing male or female embryos, proposing that Parliament should be able to decide in a free vote by MPs.

The report is also expected to say that a ban on using the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research is too restrictive and that regulators should be allowed to decide which scientists should be licensed to carry out such work.

Cell-match medicine: How the unborn can cure sisters and brothers

Cells are taken from embryos when they are about three days old to see if they are a genetic match for a seriously ill brother or sister. If so, the embryo is implanted in the mother. When the baby is born, stem cells are taken from the umbilical cord and kept until a transplant into the unwell sibling can take place. Embryos that do not match may be thrown away or stored for later use.

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