Legislation has no place in the cloning debate

From a Royal Societyof Arts lecture given by Manchester University professor, John Harris, for the Creating Sparks science festival
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One of the responsibilities not only of ethics but of everyone interested in the question of what sort of world we want to create and maintain is how, and how far, to regulate science.

One of the responsibilities not only of ethics but of everyone interested in the question of what sort of world we want to create and maintain is how, and how far, to regulate science.

When considering the issue of the regulation and control of science, we need to know something about the grounds on which we might be entitled to regulate and the purposes for which we ought to regulate.

The globalisation of bioethics may be thought of as the phenomenon whereby the ethical agenda is increasingly set - not by religious, cultural or, indeed, ethical traditions, nor by competition in the marketplace of ideas. Rather this agenda is set by national and international ethics committees and by the reports and conclusions that the committees produce. These are disseminated either by the bodies and governments to whom these bodies report or, increasingly, by the press and media interest that they arouse.

It is these reports that are fast becoming the reference points for ethical decision-making. This is disturbing because, even where the reports are well-argued, the argument is necessarily brief and itself pendant upon other sources which, while often referenced, are seldom quoted in any detail and hence do not become part of the debate.

We are in danger of seeing an increasing marginalisation of serious work in bioethics and an increasing use of, and a reliance upon, reports and other relatively brief public statements. Almost all publicly funded ethics research of the sort that is undertaken or commissioned by ethics committees and commissions seems to believe that it should include some attempt to discover what people think about the issues under consideration. However, the point and purpose of obtaining this information is seldom clear.

Very often so-called "data" about what the public think is gathered without any clear understanding of what purpose such an exercise is supposed to serve or of the effects it might have. It is simply thought to be "a good thing". The tendency towards conservatism built into processes of public consultation is often thought to be consistent with prudence and with the so-called "precautionary principle". This principle, while it may be vague, is generally interpreted as requiring, not altogether unreasonably, that we always proceed responsibly, exposing communities and one another to the least possible danger. However, very often the failure to take radical steps is the policy that costs us most, both in the short and in the long term.

The issue of human reproductive cloning is a locus classicus for these issues. The Government of the United Kingdom has received a major report from its advisers on the ethics of human cloning.

The report, entitled "Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine", is to be congratulated on explaining and defending the use of cloning technology to develop cultured cell lines and the production of tailor-made stem cells for organogenesis and other therapeutic uses. Likewise, the report's insistence on the contingency of safety issues constitutes an important and progressive approach. Most importantly, the report recommends a speedy review of all the issues because of the accelerating pace of scientific advance.

The good sense of these recommendations is, however, somewhat undermined by the gratuitous invitation to the Government to consider passing "legislation explicitly banning reproductive cloning regardless of the technique used".

Legislation is notoriously difficult to repeal once on the statute book, and it is unlikely that, should this suggestion be taken up and a subsequent review be commissioned by the Government, the repeal of statutes would quickly follow, whatever the recommendations of any subsequent report might be.