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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 16:36 GMT
Government moves to close cloning loophole
Cloned kids graphic
The bill will make reproductive cloning illegal again
A bill explicitly banning human reproduction through cloning was published by the UK Government on Thursday after it passed a first reading unopposed in the House of Lords on Wednesday.

There is an alternative

Lord Alton
Ministers say their aim is to close a recently exposed loophole in the current law that could be used to justify any unlicensed cloning experiments.

The bill, which should pass all stages in the Commons on 29 November, makes it a criminal offence "to place in the womb of a woman a human embryo that has been created other than by fertilisation".

Critics say the government is rushing to bring forward bad legislation and they will make strenuous efforts to amend it.

Medical malpractice

The government action was deemed necessary after anti-abortion campaigners, the Pro-Life Alliance, won a High Court ruling last week that laid bare a major deficiency in the legislation covering embryology research.

This flaw centred on the legal definition of an embryo - the union of an egg and a sperm.

Because a clone is produced in a different way, the judge ruled that current regulations did not embrace the new technology.

This loophole, in theory, could allow someone to conduct cloning experiments without the licensed permission of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, the body that is supposed to oversee this area of research.

In reality, commentators said, other laws relating to medical malpractice and even assault could be used to prevent cloning experiments.

Therapeutic cloning

Nevertheless, the government is determined to remove the legal flaw. It also intends to appeal against the High Court ruling.

Therapeutic cloning... is a vital technique

Richard Gardiner
Royal Society
Ministers hope that by closing the loophole researchers will then be properly licensed to carry out a more limited form of cloning - so-called therapeutic cloning - that aims to develop replacement cells to treat degenerative diseases.

The government's critics say the country's embryology legislation is deeply flawed and there is little point in merely trying to patch it up.

Peers and MPs opposed to the use of embryos for research on ethical grounds say they will attempt to amend the bill so that both reproductive and therapeutic cloning are banned.

'Proven success'

Richard Gardiner, chairman of the Royal Society, argues this would be wrong: "We need to secure a watertight ban on reproductive cloning," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"But we would argue very strongly not at the expense of therapeutic cloning, which is a vital technique for helping us to understand how you can reprogram the genetic information from specialised cells so that we can more effectively help patients."

Lord Alton, who opposes all forms of human cloning, told Today an alternative had emerged since previous legislation was drafted.

"Since January last, impressive new evidence... illustrates that there is an alternative, and that's the use of adult stem cells.

"There's a vast biomedical potential there, a proven success record in laboratory culture and a proven success record in current clinical treatment," he said.

Lib Dem protests

Liberal Democrat MPs were protesting on Thursday night that there was insufficient time for proper debate.

Andrew Stunell, Lib Dem MP for Hazel Grove, asked Leader of the House Robin Cook if he was "satisfied" that "the amount of time is sufficient for a properly measured debate and that the framework of the bill is sufficient to allow sensible amendments to be added to it?"

Mr Cook replied: "What we are seeking to do is no more than what was understood to be the state of the law before the ruling last week.

"It may well be that at a future time we need to look at further measures in examining this issue but for the time being we do need emergency measures to prevent those coming to Britain in order to exploit the loophole that has been shown by the court decision."

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"Last week's ruling shattered this plan"
Richard Gardiner of the Royal Society and Lord Alton
discuss the law surrounding human cloning
See also:

19 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Move to block human cloning
15 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Court backs cloning challenge
15 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Campaigners hail cloning verdict
06 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Cloning doctor to make UK bid
25 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Clone pregnancy 'this year'
06 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Warning over dangers of cloning
23 Jan 01 | UK Politics
UK enters the clone age
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