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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 23:56 GMT 00:56 UK
UK 'stumbling in gene minefield'
How far should we be allowed to "design" a baby
Medical technology is fast outpacing society's own ability to decide whether inventions are good or bad, says a leading scientist.

There are dangers of the latest inventions in gene therapy, assisted reproduction or even cloning either being misused - or the benefits being wasted, Professor David Galton, from St Bartholomew's Hospital, told BBC News Online.

Panels containing ethicists, doctors and members of the public should be set up to judge which procedures should be allowed, and which not, he said.

An Italian fertility doctor has outraged many by openly planning to clone a human being, and many others fear that the ability to genetically select embryos might lead to "designer babies", both free from diseases and with other characteristics favoured by the parents.

I don't see why these decisions should be left up to governments

Professor David Galton
Professor Galton, speaking at a Royal Society of Medicine conference this week, told delegates that the UK was unprepared to make difficult decisions about whether advanced techniques were harmful or beneficial.

He told BBC News Online that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, set up at the dawn of the IVF age to regulate treatments, was too inflexible.

He said: "I don't see why these decisions should be left up to governments.

'Blanket bans'

"Governments and lawyers want to produce blanket rules which apply to everybody, which means that some will be treated unfairly."

He cited the case of Diane Blood, who successfully applied to the High Court to use her dead husband's stored sperm to have a child, was a clear example, he said, of the problems of binding fertility treatments up in legislation.

"It took years for her to get the permission she needed, even though she had a very strong case."

More and more genes are uncovered each year which seem to predispose babies to devastating future diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

And increasingly, couples are using embryo selection to determine the sex of their children, with the potential to choose elements such as hair and eye colour and even intelligence in future years.

Professor Galton said that, in the UK, each case now needed to be treated on an individual basis.

"There should be an independent panel, with perhaps a genetic expert, a bioethicist and a lay member to make decisions on a case-by-case basis."

Professor Galton has written a book about the ethics of Eugenics entitled "In our Own Image", published by Little, Brown.

See also:

04 Oct 00 | Health
'Designer baby' ethics fear
13 Jul 01 | Health
UK genetic screening to go ahead
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