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Last Updated: Friday, 16 July, 2004, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Probe into ethics of gene testing
Image of two babies
Public will get its say on what is acceptable
A nationwide consultation to find out the public's view on genetic testing of embryos has been launched by the Human Genetics Commission.

It will draw out people's opinions on new developments such as screening embryos for genetic disorders and the prospect of "designer babies".

The consultation will take place over three months.

The HGC will consider the results and produce its advice to ministers next year.

The HGC has produced a document outlining what it sees as the major issues around genetics and reproduction.

There should be a proper debate
Baroness Helena Kennedy, chair of the HGC

Baroness Helena Kennedy, chair of the HGC, said: "At the heart of the issue is where do we, as a society, strike a balance between individual needs and wants, the wider social consequences of the decisions we make.

"We are asking fundamental questions that we as a society need to think about. And we need to think about them now," she said.

One of the issues the HGC is seeking views on is the creation of designer babies.

The science exists to select embryos on the basis of simple genetic traits, such as sex.

Designer babies

Medical science has used this technology to create "saviour siblings" - where an embryo is chosen to be a good genetic match to donate tissue to a sick brother or sister.

Recently, a couple from Leeds hit the headlines when they were given the go-ahead by the Court of Appeal to have a "perfect match" test-tube baby selected to help cure their other child, Zain, of a rare blood disorder.

Many people say that this process is unethical, and the start of a slippery slope that leads to human cloning.

Another area for debate is what genetic disorders can a baby be tested for during pregnancy.

Pregnant women are routinely offered screening for genetic disorders such as Down's syndrome, but there is concern about the growing number of tests.

Last year the High Court granted an appeal for a review of the decision by West Mercia police not to prosecute doctors who aborted a foetus beyond 24 weeks' gestation because the mother, taking advice from doctors, did not want a baby with a cleft palate.

Joanna Jepson, a curate at St Michaels Church in Chester who was born with a cleft palate, argued the abortion was not justified.

Baroness Kennedy said: "Where do we draw lines about what are imperfections and what is disease and disability?

"I think there are concerns amongst many people.

"There should be a proper debate," she said.

Helen Wallace of the science policy group Genewatch said: "This raises crucial questions about to what extent our genetic make-up will determine our future lives and we'd encourage as many people as possible to put their views into the consultation.

"We will be making a submission. This is something that society has to decide about where to draw the line in terms of using genetic testing to make decisions about abortions and who should live and who shouldn't," she said.

Professor Jack Scarisbrick, national chairman of LIFE, said: "We are pleased that the Commission has recognised people's concerns and anxieties about genetics and reproductive decision-making.

"We believe the consultation will reveal that most people now believe that things have gone too far," he said.

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