Tougher rules urged for 'designer baby' clinics

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LEGISLATION to restrict the activities of fertility clinics was demanded yesterday in the wake of the 'designer babies' furore over plans to implant a black woman with a white donor egg.

David Alton, the Liberal- Democrat MP and leading opponent of abortion, condemned the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority as a 'toothless tiger', although it had already said that moves to provide black couples with white children for purely social reasons would be banned.

A member of the Government-appointed regulatory authority, the Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr Richard Holloway, insisted it was acutely aware of the complex issues involved.

The latest row over 'designer babies' flared after doctors at the Bourn Hall Clinic, in Cambridge, confirmed that they were to implant a black woman, married to a husband of mixed race, with a white donor's egg. This followed the revelation that doctors in Rome have already helped a black woman to give birth to a white baby.

Dr Peter Brinsden, the Cambridge clinic's director, dismissed suggestions that the process was tantamount to genetic engineering. He said: 'She has no eggs, they desperately want a child, have done for years and years. They have been waiting four years for (black) donor eggs, but there is no way we can find them one. She said, 'Why can't we use a white egg?' The child would be mixed race whether we used a white egg or one of her own, if she had one.'

The chief executive of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Flora Goldhill, said that it would study the case to make sure the clinic follows the proper procedures. The Bishop of Edinburgh said: 'They (the clinic) are led by people very aware that this is heavy duty ethical stuff. To stir up undue anxieties in people does not help us engage intellectually with the real issues.'

The assurances failed to mollify David Alton, who said the issue was an international one because it was now easy to side-step legislative curbs in one country by travelling to another with a more lax regulatory framework. 'We need a standing committee to regulate and re-examine the massive breakthroughs in technology which are constantly being made,' he said. 'We have irredeemably flawed legislation and a regulatory authority which is a toothless tiger. All it can do is to issue recommendations. We need much tougher legislation.'

There was also strong criticism from Dame Jill Knight, chairwoman of the Conservative backbench health committee, who said: 'This is plain and unvarnished genetic engineering and as such must be unacceptable.'

But the discovery by French researchers of the variants of two genes in a group of centenarians which appeared to make them resistant to lethal diseases in old age - heart disease and Alzheimer's disease - raised the possibilty that the debate about genetic engineering would be widened.

The Association of British Insurers has been watching closely the advances in genetics. Malcolm Tarling, of the association, said insurers had no plans to introduce genetic testing before accepting a person for insurance cover.

'If someone has a test, should insurers have a right, and indeed obligation, to obtain the results? The insurers' duty is to obtain relevant medical information. However, the industry doesn't want to do anything which hinder advances in genetic science.'

Colours of Morality, page 19