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Tuesday, 19 December, 2000, 19:41 GMT
MPs vote to extend embryo research
MP Anne Begg
Labour's Anne Begg: "Duty to pass amendment"
UK politicians have voted decisively in favour of extending the research done on human embryos.

The vote by MPs to relax the existing rules was a two-thirds majority, with 366 members voting for the amendment and 174 against.

The British Government wanted to relax the existing rules, so that special cells can be taken from embryos at a very early stage of development.

Researchers believe these embryonic stem cells will revolutionise the treatment of degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, particularly when the cells are obtained using the cloning technology that produced Dolly the sheep.

My view is that we are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings

Peter Garrett, Life
The highly controversial nature of so-called therapeutic cloning, and embryo experimentation in general, meant that MPs were given a free vote on an amendment to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

As it stood, the Act permitted licensed research using human embryos only for strictly limited purposes related to infertility, and for a limited period of 14 days.

The amendment extends the Act so that early-stage embryos can also be used for research into non-congenital diseases.

Slippery slope

Strong lobbying from outside interest groups had ensured the vote was a high-profile occasion.

Peter Garrett, research director at the anti-abortion charity Life, said: "Firstly, to deliberately create and destroy human life is dehumanising to the scientists who carry it out and the society that licenses it.

A blastocyst: Embryonic stem cells are "harvested" from early-stage embryos
"Secondly, once you open the flood gates on the production of human cloned embryos, you are setting up the preconditions for full pregnancy cloning.

"My view is that we are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings."

But Labour's Anne Begg, speaking in the debate, told the House of Commons that it had a duty to pass the amendment.

"Stem cell research has the potential to act as the key which opens the door to many advances in our knowledge and our ability to treat some of the most heart-rending conditions that are presently untreatable," said the Aberdeen South MP, who suffers from a genetic condition called Gaucher's disease which results in brittle bones.

"Please don't step back from that vision. The only slippery slope is the one that leads to making many people's lives so much, much better."

During the debate public health minister Yvette Cooper made an impassioned plea for scientists to be given the go-ahead for stem cell research, denying it was a "slippery slope" to human cloning.

Ms Cooper told the Commons that the research could hold "the key to healing within the human body", giving hope not only to those suffering from degenerative diseases but also cancer and heart disease victims.

Rejection problem

When in 1998 scientists first isolated and cultured embryonic stem cells in the lab, it was hailed as a major technical advance.

Researchers realised that if they could control the development of these special cells they could create an unlimited range of replacement tissues to treat a host of conditions such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, damaged organs, broken spinal cords and limbs, and cure diabetes.

When sourced from embryos that have been produced through the cloning of the patient's own genetic material, the replacement tissues would also avoid the rejection problems that bedevil current transplant procedures.

It would free patients from the rigorous, life-long drug regimes they currently have to follow after surgery.

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See also:

17 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
UK 'developing anti-science culture'
07 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for cloning research
14 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists claim world cloning first
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