Anyone reading the British press over the past few months could be forgiven for thinking that the government is about to change the law to allow human cloning for therapeutic purposes. There have been so many articles suggesting that Liam Donaldson is about to publish his recommendations that many people assume it's already happened.
Just to set the record straight, at the time of writing, the Donaldson committee has not published its recommendations - nor is there any clear indication as to when it will. An educated guess would suggest that the recommendations, when they do finally see the light of day, will be in line with recommendations made by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). But until the Donaldson findings are made public, we can only guess at their contents.
Part of the reason for the flurry of speculation about when and what Donaldson will recommend is the excessive delay in publishing them. The birth of Dolly the cloned sheep was announced in February 1997. A year later, in January 1998, the HFEA launched a public consultation on the issues raised by the cloning breakthrough. But when the HFEA published its recommendations in December 1998, the British government did not feel ready to accept them. Instead, it asked Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson to look again at the issues.
The government may have perfectly legitimate reasons for taking so long to come to a decision. But in the meantime, the media anticipation is less than helpful. News in this week's BioNews, which is based upon yet another leak, shows what can happen when political correspondents are hunting around for stories and government officials won't talk. Last week, the News of the World told us that 'cloning of human organs' was about to be sanctioned and that these organs would be grown in animals. Further, the journalist reminded us that a 'different form of cloning' was used to produce a human ear on the back of a mouse. A day later, the story was picked up by another tabloid and the same scientific possibilities were discussed.
All the statements made by the News of the World and others were wrong. The journalist misunderstood the facts and can only have confused his readers as a result. Of course, journalists must check their facts and take responsibility for inaccuracies. But the longer we wait, the more likely this kind of Chinese whispering will go on. Please, Mr Blair, let us hear Donaldson's recommendations so that we can get on with a debate that is informed and rational.