Ignorance and ethical obscurantism must not hold up medical research

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The Independent Online

There will, inevitably, be pressure on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to reject the application it is now considering from Newcastle University to clone Europe's first human embryo

There will, inevitably, be pressure on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to reject the application it is now considering from Newcastle University to clone Europe's first human embryo. It is not that the researchers are planning on taking cloning to the conclusion of producing a human baby. But even their plan to use cloning to find a cure for diabetes will find vocal opposition from some anti-abortion campaigners.

Such opposition should be resisted. It is true that the researchers plan to use the same technique that was used to create Dolly the cloned sheep. But to couch the debate in such terms is to pre-judge it. For what they intend to do is remove the nucleus from a human egg left over from IVF treatment and then insert into that cell the DNA from a diabetes sufferer from which the diabetes gene has been removed. The stem cells which will result can then, they hope, be injected into a juvenile diabetes sufferer, without the risk of the child's body rejecting them. Life-long cures for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and other scourges may one day be uncovered by the same process.

The key point here is that the embryos from which the stem cells are extracted will be destroyed before they are 14 days old and never allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead. When the manipulation of human embryos became a scientific possibility in this country in the 1970s the Government set up the Warnock committee to set parameters for embryo research. It concluded that the boundary should be fixed at the day before the point when the "primitive streak" emerges which becomes the human spinal cord and nervous system. Until that point the embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into any human cell. After that they develop differentiated special functions. It is a working definition which most people in this country accept and one on which Parliament has relied in all subsequent legislation.

This definition underlies the distinction made by an amendment to the Human Embryology Act which allowed cloning human embryos for therapeutic purposes - but not for reproductive purposes - in January 2001. The Newcastle University application now before the HFEA is merely the practical outworking of that Act. So long as the research is to be carried out within the approved guidelines, and has a good chance of success, there is absolutely no reason why the HFEA should not approve it.

Critics have objected that the research proposal will cross a new ethical boundary. Creating an embryo specifically for this purpose, as distinct from using one already fertilised for IVF purposes, does raise new questions about instrumentality - the embryo becomes a mere tool, rather than something that exists in its own right. This is a difficulty which needs to be acknowledged. But human life is not the same as a human being. Though embryos are to be respected, they do not have the same moral status as human beings. Other ethical considerations than respect for the embryo are relevant here. Discovering treatment for children and adults who suffer from terrible diseases is a moral issue, too. And respect for a potential future person has to be balanced against a greater respect for the needs of those who are alive now.

This science is at an early stage. We do not yet know how to control the way embryonic stem cells develop into different cell types. We do not understand their tendency to form tumours when transplanted. We do not know why the cloning process often leads to abnormal cell behaviour. All this needs research. But the British authorities have a good track record of carefully regulating such work. It is important that we have confidence in allowing them to continue to do so - and do not allow ethical obscurantism or ignorance to impede the work of scientists trying to find cures for some of the worst diseases that afflict our children.