Byline: Lorraine Fraser
ON AN incubator shelf in an infertility labor-atory somewhere in Britain a round glass dish contains three perfect embryos.
Each has been genetically altered to provide its parents with the designer babies they want - blue eyes, blond hair, whatever physical characteristics the mother and father desire. They are babies to order, almost off the shelf of a clinical supermarket.
21st Century fiction? Certainly. But the 21st Century - and the technology to alter the human embryo - are only a few years away.
As we disclose today, two women asked doctors at a top UK infertility centre earlier this year to help in an equally extraordinary scenario. They wanted a baby they believed would be a child of their lesbian relationship - a baby created from the egg of one woman, fertilised by sperm from an unknown man, but nurtured in the womb of the other.
The Research Ethics Committee of King's College Hospital in London turned down the request, presented to it by infertility specialist John Parsons.
That it was ever asked to consider it, however, is a chilling reminder of just how far towards social engineering modern infertility techniques are already capable of taking us.
It tells us just how far some people are already prepared to go to get their `perfect' child.
Technically, it would have been easy for infertility specialists to give these women their baby.
And when demand and technical capability coincide in an environment as money-driven as Britain's largely private infertility services it is inevitable that, unless there are strong external controls, someone somewhere will eventually provide.
The truth is that laws governing the actions of doctors in Britain's 120 licensed infertility clinics are now weaker than voluntary agreements in place in the Eighties. Then, clinics were obliged to have an ethics committee to which controversial cases were referred.
Today, the 1990 Human Fertilis-ation and Embryology Act and the code of practice of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority order no such safeguard. Legally, decisions on treatment are entirely a matter for the doctor in charge.
IF JOHN Parsons or any other doctor dealing with
the lesbian couple's case had chosen not to ask for advice but to go ahead and quietly treat the women, there would have been little to stand in their way.
Last night there were calls from within and outside the infertility `industry' for urgent steps to put more controls in place.
Privately, a growing number of MPs believe the situation is getting out of hand. Ministers are reluctant to strip clinicians of the responsibility for ethical decisions. But there is growing pressure in Parliament for an inquiry into these vital questions.
Sammy Lee, embryologist at the Portland Hospital in London, is one practitioner who is not afraid to admit he is deeply concerned about the future.
He said: `There are units facing these sorts of questions which do not have ethical committees or which don't even bother to consult them if they do.
`The ethical committee should be a vital component of policing IVF clinics. Every unit should have to have one, every unit should have to put anything remotely controversial to the ethical committee and the committee's decision should be binding.
`The trouble for all of us working in the field, myself included, is that our sensibilities and our humanity are eroded every day by what we are faced with. …