A respectful, if rather too hesitant, approach to cloning

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The Independent Online

"Respect" is a fashionable word, much loved by rappers, street hoodlums and television scriptwriters. It also appears with notable frequency in the report on stem-cell research by the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, when he turns to ethical questions over the use of human embryos. The Government, having funked the opportunity to examine issues arising from the cloning of Dolly the sheep, left Professor Donaldson the task of walking a moral, political and ethical tightrope in trying to find a consensual approach that satisfies scientists, politicians, multinational bosses and religious leaders. So he, at least, deserves our respect for rising to that challenge.

"Respect" is a fashionable word, much loved by rappers, street hoodlums and television scriptwriters. It also appears with notable frequency in the report on stem-cell research by the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, when he turns to ethical questions over the use of human embryos. The Government, having funked the opportunity to examine issues arising from the cloning of Dolly the sheep, left Professor Donaldson the task of walking a moral, political and ethical tightrope in trying to find a consensual approach that satisfies scientists, politicians, multinational bosses and religious leaders. So he, at least, deserves our respect for rising to that challenge.

After Dolly's birth, two quangos charged with keeping an eye on developments in this area - the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority - made a number of recommendations on modifying the law regarding the medical uses of human embryos. In conclusion, they suggested banning the cloning of whole human beings but extending the permitted uses of embryos less than 14 days old to include research into novel medical treatments, particularly of diseased or damaged tissues.

That was in December 1988. As soon as the predictable voices of opposition were raised - as usual, confusing potential lives with human lives - ministers kicked the issue into the long grass by asking Professor Donaldson to make another report.

Surprise, surprise: a year and a half later, the professor's "expert group", in a publication that is a model of expository prose and common sense, has come to much the same conclusions as its predecessors. The group has accepted the consensual view, enshrined in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, that while a human embryo, or an early foetus for that matter, is entitled to be treated with more respect than a random collection of cells, that does not make it an inviolable entity that can be neither destroyed nor put to good uses. Respect for the embryo, in fact, can be shown by making use of it to help people suffering from such appalling conditions as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases.

On this occasion, the Government has half-grasped the nettle by "accepting" the recommendation to extend the purposes for which human embryos may be used in research, while allowing Parliament a free vote when the Bill needed to legislate these changes is introduced, whenever that may be. That is not really good enough.

The issues here are neither novel nor particularly complicated. The sooner Parliament enacts the necessary law, the sooner the considerable benefits for human health can be reaped.

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