These moral qualms must not stop medical progress

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An American biotechnology company's announcement that it has created an embryonic human clone has initiated the usual tirade of condemnation from those opposed to the whole idea of using human embryos for medical research. Opponents range from the Vatican to non-religious groups with more humanistic objections, such as Human Genetics Alert, a pressure group keeping an eye on the influence of big business on reproductive medicine.

An American biotechnology company's announcement that it has created an embryonic human clone has initiated the usual tirade of condemnation from those opposed to the whole idea of using human embryos for medical research. Opponents range from the Vatican to non-religious groups with more humanistic objections, such as Human Genetics Alert, a pressure group keeping an eye on the influence of big business on reproductive medicine.

Advanced Cell Technology said that it created a human embryo by the same "cell nuclear transfer" technique used to produce Dolly the sheep. It did it as part of the international effort to generate the "totipotent" (literally "all-powerful") embryonic stem cells that can be made to grow into any type of tissue. The intention is that, one day in the not-too-distant future, doctors might be able to treat many of the most intractable and debilitating illnesses of our age, from Parkinson's to cardiovascular disease, using the stem cells of cloned embryos.

An overwhelming majority of informed opinion argues that creating human clones in this way heralds a revolution in medicine. But what makes this technology so appalling for some is that it could also technically result in the birth of a baby "conceived" by the fusion of a nucleus from an adult skin cell with an unfertilised egg.

For the moment, at least, nobody, save for one publicity-hungry Italian doctor, wants reproductive cloning. However, an embarrassing loophole in British legislation, which the Government is now taking measures to close, means that there is nothing in law to prevent it happening.

It is vital that we allow human cloning to go ahead in order to allow the properly regulated "harvesting" of embryonic stem cells under the auspices of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. An embryo up to 14 days old – the age beyond which it cannot legally be allowed to survive outside the womb – demands respect; it does not, however, demand equality with a child crippled by illness or an adult struck down in the prime of life by a degenerative condition.

The medical establishment strives to alleviate suffering. It is invidious to argue that a microscopic ball of cells devoid of any specialised nervous system or sentience in some way commands the same rights as a fully formed human being in pain and distress. The latest development in cloning should be welcomed, not condemned.

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