Christian and anti-abortion groups in Great Britain are protesting a decision by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to allow scientists at the University of Newcastle to clone human embryos for research.
"After careful consideration of all the scientific, ethical, legal and medical aspects of the project, the HFEA License Committee agreed to grant an initial one-year research license to the Newcastle Centre for Life," Suzi Leather, chairwoman of the agency, said Aug. 11 in a statement.
Leather described the program as "an important area of research and a responsible use of technology," while pledging that any research involving human embryos will be "scrutinized and properly regulated."
The license is the first to be granted more than three years after Britain became the first nation to authorize cloning to produce human stem cells for research. Scientists believe research with embryonic stem cells could eventually provide breakthrough treatments of diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Pro-life groups, believing that life begins at the moment of conception, oppose the technique, because it requires that living embryos be destroyed.
"We are opposed to the cloning of human embryos for any purpose whatsoever," said Julia Millington of the ProLife Party. "However cloning for so-called therapeutic purposes is particularly abhorrent as it results in the abuse and ultimate destruction of the human life which is created. The destruction of even one human life in order to save another can never be justified."
Don Horrocks of Britain's Evangelical Alliance said the decision cheapens human life. "While we understand the need to find cures for a whole range of diseases and we acknowledge the distress such diseases can cause the sufferer and those close to them, we are concerned that destroying an embryo to assist another person risks trading off one life against another," Horrocks, EA's head of public affairs said, quoted in The Baptist Times.
Great Britain permits cloning for therapeutic purposes but not to create a child. According to the law, stem cells must be harvested within two weeks after the embryo is formed.
The cloning technique, called nuclear cell replacement, involves removing the nucleus of a human egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus from a human body cell, such as a skin cell. The egg is then artificially stimulated, causing it to divide and grow similar to a normal embryo.
Stem cells can be harvested from adults, but they are viewed as potentially less versatile than those obtained from embryos. Scientists envision being able to create an embryo cloned from a patient so that stem cells extracted would be a perfect match for transplant.
Cloning entered the U.S. presidential race when Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry said if elected he would overturn restrictions on federal funding of research for stem cell research.
President Bush three years ago issued an order limiting federal funding to research on stem cell lines created prior to Aug. 9, 2001.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Also see: Stem-cell Debate Enters Presidential Campaign