LEADING ARTICLE : Ancient law and modern science

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During the early Eighties, Britain had its great debate on the sanctity of human life, the status of the human embryo, and what it was permissible for scientists to do with human beings and with human reproduction. The debate was sparked by the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby. Concern over the ethical implications of the new "reproductive technologies" led the Government to establish a committee chaired by Mary (now Baroness) Warnock to set the limits of what was acceptable. The committee stimulated a structured public debate. Inchoate but powerful public concerns were reassured, not only by the measured and reasoned conclusions of the Warnock committee's report, but also by the simple knowledge that the committee was examining such matters.

But science does not stand still. IVF is, by the standards of the Nineties, an "old" technology. The forefront of today's research is manipulating human genes rather than embryos. Instead of transplanting organs, such as kidneys, doctors in Britain are already transplanting human genes into the bodies of those who suffer from inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis. Later this week, the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology will hear evidence on the "new genetics" from representatives of the Jewish and Anglican religious traditions.

Last week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics produced a clear report on the legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of human organs and tissues in medicine and research. The study revealed that most laws relevant to biotechnology of the late 20th century are Victorian statutes designed to combat body-snatching.

The council advocated that human bodies and body parts should not be anyone's "property", nor should they be the subject of commercial transactions. Yet, for the past decade or more, human cell lines and human genes have been patented - have become the intellectual property of research institutes and companies.

Various groups have opposed such patents on the grounds that they are as unethical as patenting whole organs or surgical procedures. Meanwhile, defenders of the system believe that the development of new medicines would be handicapped if researchers and companies were deprived of the rewards for their work that the patent system offers. Whichever side is right, there is undeniable public and professional unease.

These issues are too pressing to be ignored. The status of genes is central to the creation of children and of what it is to be human. The new genetics promise great benefits, but unless limits are set we could find ourselves with little say over a world in which babies can be designed and commercial interests intrude into the most intimate aspects of human relations.

That is why we need a full debate aimed at devising legislation to set rules governing a host of issues ranging from genetic testing and insurance to patenting, experimentation and confidentiality. The time has come to revisit the Warnock findings.