In response to the latest of a series of leaks about the government's plans for therapeutic cloning and stem cell therapies, the UK shadow health secretary, Dr Liam Fox, accused the government of avoiding debate and riding rough-shod over public opinion. The government may not be ready to engage in debate, but BioNews is. So, what are the arguments in favour of cloning and stem cell therapies?
The first is that they are necessary. Stem cells offer enormous hope for the treatment of a whole host of human diseases. And deriving stem cells from human embryos that have been cloned from the patient would provide immunologically compatible cell therapies. Some stem cells could be taken from an adult patient, rather than from an embryo, but this probably won't work for many diseases. Eventually, compatible cells could be derived without having to create an embryo at all, but embryo research will be necessary to get us to this point.
The use of human embryos for stem cell therapies wouldn't be a huge departure from existing practices. Stem cells can already be derived from human embryos in research programmes. But the law only allows this to take place for five specific purposes - purposes that don't include the development of cell therapies. This isn't because anyone objected to this use of stem cells, but because no-one thought it would be possible when the law was passed.
And so, adding extra embryo research purposes to the existing ones wouldn't change the spirit of the law in this area. Nor would it require new regulatory structures. In the UK, any creation, storage or use of human embryos outside of the human body requires a license and adherence to strict protocols and guidelines. Stem cell research for therapeutic purposes would have to abide by these rules just like all embryo research programmes.
But the most important argument in favour of stem cell research and treatment is that it is ethically right. Human embryos, just a few days after fertilisation, might be human, but they're not people. They simply do not - and cannot - have the same rights as we do. And so, if human embryos can be used to better understand and, ultimately, to treat human ailments, it is ethically right and proper to do so. In fact, given that the promise of stem cell therapies is so great, it would be ethically unacceptable _not_ to do so. Fiddling while Rome burns is simply not an option.
Liam Fox might be right that there hasn't been enough public debate around the use of stem cells therapies. But he's wrong to suggest that there hasn't been any debate. Apart from the public debate on embryo research during the 1980s, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority held a public consultation on therapeutic cloning during 1998, which indicated significant support for opening up the legislation to allow for stem cell therapies.
Nor is the debate over. Despite the media discussion that is bound to follow the government's announcement, the law can't change without a parliamentary debate. When that debate happens is up to the government. It's outcome, however, is in the hands of the politicians.