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Wednesday, 16 August, 2000, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Head-to-head: Human cloning

Scientific experts have recommended that the UK Government should allow the use of embryo cells in research to grow replacement body tissues. But the decision is a controversial one.

Kevin Dillon of the Movement Against the Cloning of Humans thinks it is a step too far, but the University of London's Professor Steve Jones backs the pioneering technology.

The argument for human cloning

By Professor Steve Jones

Cloning is one of those words that delivers a lot less than it promises. Cloning is simply reproduction without sex.

You are a clone, and so am I, descended in the most chaste fashion from a single fertilised egg by simple cell division.

Every one of the millions of King Edward potatoes is one too, grown without sex by dividing one plant into two.

There is also, of course, Dolly the sheep. That amazing animal that was cloned by inserting the genes of one sheep into the emptied egg of another, to give a perfectly normal lamb with no father but two mothers.

Transplant breakthrough

All this is cloning but most people see the word only in terms of making identical copies not of sheep, but of humans.

The government has given the go-ahead for a very limited form of the process, for copying cells, not people.

Therapeutic cloning just might be the breakthrough that means that transplants of kidneys or hearts become a standard treatment

Professor Steve Jones
This therapeutic cloning just might be the breakthrough that means that transplants of kidneys or hearts become a standard treatment, rather than exceptional events that depend on a matching donor becoming available.

Even if that is not possible, there is already hope that such engineered stem cells could be used to make skin for burns victims, or brain cells for those suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Every day, thousands of early embryos are thrown away from fertility clinics because, to have any chance of success, many more eggs are fertilised than are in the end replaced in a potential mother.

The new law allows these small groups of cells to be used in the hope of treating the sick, rather than simply being discarded.

Radical improvements

I would expect that the parents of those tiny pieces of material would feel happier that they are used in this way than simply seeing them as gone for ever.

It is worth remembering that half a century ago, even transplants of the cornea of the eye from a corpse to a blind person were not allowed on ethical grounds.

Organ transplants are now a standard part of medicine.

My guess is that 50 years from now, we will look back in as much amazement at the days when therapeutic cloning was seen as unethical, as we now do at the time when the blind stayed blind because society was not willing to follow where science was leading them.

Argument against cloning

By Kevin Dillon

The public belief that science acts in the interest of society is in crisis, according to a recent report of the House of Lords committee on Science and Society.

And this finding accurately reflects the publication of the report by the Donaldson committee, which sanctions the first stage of human cloning.

Electing to speculate on the "quick fix" approach, the government has foregone cutting-edge research that has shown the efficiency and ethical viability of using adults as an alternative source of stem cells.

Instead, they have adopted the grossly simplistic and unsubstantiated position that the ethical objections are "outweighed by the potential benefits".

Government "on the run"

The Donaldson committee's approach can be explained in simple terms.

First, it has escaped public notice that the government has co-ownership of the patents required to exploit therapeutic cloning in the marketplace.

Human beings should never be treated as a means to an end

Kevin Dillon
Secondly, that scientists are set to export their research elsewhere if the government refuses to legalise therapeutic cloning.

The government is being held to ransom by what the expert in genetics Dr Patrick Dixon refers to as "institutions" that "have the power to dictate terms to governments".

But this approach may already have backfired.

The recent announcement by the Roslin Institute that it is to abandon a 12.5m research project into the cloning of pig organs for human transplantation indicates that there is a real fear of public backlash within the corridors of power.

Public confidence

Creating human beings as tiny stem cell generators, only to destroy them once their utility has been served, tramples on the critical ethical principle that human beings should never be treated as a means to an end.

Ethics have been no more than a 3-5% consideration in the entire debate, according to the geneticist Art Caplan, commenting in his capacity as ethical advisor to the Human Genome Project.

The ultimate irony is that the government has spent more time deliberating on the "stage management" of Wednesday's report than on the profound ethical implications of its findings.

Public confidence in science may be at its lowest point in recent history, but public confidence in government is now running a close second.

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See also:

14 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists claim world cloning first
07 Nov 98 | Sci/Tech
Cell success has huge potential
31 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Q&A: Therapeutic human cloning
03 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
UK to 'approve therapeutic cloning'
06 Nov 98 | Sci/Tech
'Revolution in a dish'
19 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Stem cells promise liver repair
01 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for stem cell banks
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