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The BBC's Norman Smith
"Stem cell research will now be legal in Britain next week"
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Monday, 22 January, 2001, 23:37 GMT
Peers back cloning research
Stem cell research
Embryos are not to be "bartered" say peers
UK Government plans that allow scientists to extend the scope of their research on human embryos have been backed by the House of Lords.

These are not trivial questions that preoccupy a few moral theologians. They are at the heart of our humanity

Lord Alton
In a vote on Monday night, peers supported ministers' calls to back new human fertilisation and embryology regulations and rejected a delaying amendment by 212 votes to 92, a majority of 120.

The changes clear the way for researchers to clone the genetic material of humans to derive special cells that can be used to fight a range of degenerative diseases.

Peers opposed to the new regulations, which were approved by MPs last month, said the changes had been rushed through Parliament and should be shelved until they could be considered by a Lords committee.

Serious illnesses

But supporters argued that delaying research could hurt people suffering with serious illnesses, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease.

Scientists believe that these and other conditions could be cured if they can develop new ways to regenerate or replace damaged tissues. The best hope for this, many scientists believe, comes from stem cells present in an early-stage embryo.

However, some peers feel the ethical implications of stem cell research have not been thought through properly. They are also concerned that approving the regulations could be the first step towards full-scale reproductive cloning in which people sought to make copies of themselves.

The peers' vote was welcomed by Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris, who first introduced the proposals to the Commons.

Select committee

He said: "I am personally delighted - and that delight will be shared by patient groups and clinicians - that the Lords have done the morally right thing.

The human embryo has a special status and we owe a measure of respect to the embryo

Lord Hunt
"That is to allow carefully regulated research on stem cells using early embryos to proceed in the search for cures for some terrible diseases. Large majorities in the Commons and the Lords show that the case has been made for this work."

The Lords agreed to set up a select committee to look at the issues surrounding stem cell experimentation, without delaying the medical research.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The government will now ensure that the regulations are implemented in a sensitive way and will take into account the views and recommendations of the House of Lords select committee when it reports later this year."

Time-limited research

A delay was backed by religious leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Chief Rabbi and the President of the Muslim College.

Cross-bencher Lord Alton, who proposed the defeated amendment, told peers in a passionate debate that he questioned the morality of treating the human embryo as "just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed".

He insisted: "These are not trivial questions that preoccupy a few moral theologians. They are at the heart of our humanity."

A former Archbishop of York, crossbencher Lord Habgood, said despite not objecting in principle to time-limited embryo research (up to 14 days), he supported Lord Alton because he was "shocked" by the government proposals which "could legitimate almost anything".

'Balance to be struck'

Junior health minister Lord Hunt of Kings Heath warned peers against delaying vital research. He insisted there were no circumstances under which full, reproductive human cloning could take place in the UK, saying "there is no slippery slope here".

"The human embryo has a special status and we owe a measure of respect to the embryo," he said.

"We also owe a measure of respect to the millions of people living with these devastating illnesses and the millions who have yet to show signs of them. This is the balance we must make. It is not one that is taken lightly, but it is the one real hope for those who wait on our decision today."

He was supported by Labour scientist and broadcaster Lord Winston who warned peers: "There is no doubt that on your vote depends whether some people in the near future get a treatment which might save them from disease or, even worse, death."

Before the debate, the prime minister's official spokesman rejected suggestions that the measure was being rushed through. He said Tony Blair was "pro-science" and "believes the scientists should be able to do the research and politicians have to take judgements about the way the science is used".

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30 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Body parts cloning 'to go ahead'
16 Aug 00 | UK Politics
MPs divided on cloning
21 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Clerics' cloning plea to Lords
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