It was against the background of increasing excitement about the therapeutic potential of stem cell and cloning technologies that the UK Government's Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority issued a joint report last December. They strongly recommended that the Government give the go-ahead for research using cloning techniques by tabling the necessary regulations to amend the workings of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990). To the surprise of both supporters and critics of therapeutic uses of cloning, the Government last week delayed making a decision. But while both sides might have been surprised, there seems little doubt that it is the opponents of the new technology who have taken most comfort from the decision. Mark Nicholls of MATCH (Movement Against The Cloning of Humans) said: 'We're obviously delighted... this is one battle won, but the war is certainly not over.' Conversely, the biotech companies at the forefront of the work expressed their disappointment, and Lord Winston condemned the Government's decision as 'pathetic' and 'immoral'.
The Government has instead decided to set up an expert advisory group under the chairmanship of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, to seek the views of a range of experts from across the world. The Government has taken the view that it wants to see more evidence of the clinical potential of such work before it gives the go-ahead.
However, there is already plenty of evidence that research using somatic cell nucleus replacement offers many benefits. Studies of stem cell differentiation could provide valuable information about the mechanisms of ageing or the causes of cancer. Creating an embryonic clone and then developing from that lines of particular stem cells offers the hope of developing immunocompatible tissue for the treatment of degenerative diseases of the heart, liver, kidneys and cerebral tissue. Further into the future, if such lines of stem cells could also be modified to repair genetic defects carried by the patient, then the treatment of diseases such as diabetes, leukaemia and many rarer genetic disorders could be revolutionised. It might be said in response to this list of possibilities that they are just that - possibilities. But as Professor David Latchman, vice-chairman of the Parkinson's Disease Society's medical advisory panel put it: 'There is a paradox in this announcement. The Government says we need to see if this therapeutic research is likely to be valuable, but it's going to be quite hard to find that out without carrying out the research.' As for practical therapies being a number of years ahead - that is certainly true. But thanks to the Government's decision they are now even further away.
It would seem clear that the overriding reason for delay was the fear of adverse public reaction. After the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) fiasco and the more recent and ongoing difficulties with the GM (genetically modified) food issue, the Government is playing it safe, taking the view that it is necessary to pause in order to allow public debate. But the debate is familiar indeed. The usual objections will be raised by those opposed to all reproductive and genetic technologies. When the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was passed in 1990, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton penned an article entitled 'Embryo Farmers: the children of Mengele'. If six years of debate didn't move him then, it won't now. The case against using cloned embryos in research made from this quarter today is essentially the same as the argument made against the use of all embryos in research and in IVF treatments back then. And the arguments in favour are very similar, too - a point the Government should note. As John Harris puts it: 'If it is acceptable to produce spare embryos in pursuit of successful pregnancy then it must be justifiable to produce them in pursuit of something plausibly of the same moral magnitude. Saving a life-in-being surely comes into that category.'
A more nebulous angst is also likely to surround the debate. The concern must be that rather than leading to clarification, a delay in allowing research and yet more study of the issue will merely encourage the view that there is something deeply troubling about this kind of work. Scientists, patients and supporters of the therapeutic uses of cloning technologies will need to ensure that they use the coming period to put across a different message: that therapies for many previously untreatable disorders are a real possibility if scientists are allowed to do their work.
John Gillott is policy officer at the Genetic Interest Group