Government lawyers and lawmakers were making determined efforts this week to close a legal loophole that effectively permits human cloning in Britain.
It follows a High Court ruling Nov. 15 that Britain has no laws governing the reproduction of human embryos using cloning technology, despite a 1990 act on embryology that had been touted here as a global first.
Fearful that unethical doctors could exploit the situation to carry out human-cloning research in Britain, the government has launched an appeal against the ruling. And yesterday, it was to introduce a bill into the House of Lords, Britain's senior legislative body, to explicitly ban the practice.
Under the 1990 act, embryos could be destroyed and created for some types of medical research. Last January, the act was extended to take into account scientific advances, stem-cell experiments in particular. It was specifically worded to allow cloning to create embryos for stem-cell research. Parliament and scientists believed that cloning embryos to reproduce a child remained illegal under the change.
But the ProLife Alliance, which opposes all forms of cloning, successfully exposed a loophole in the law, claiming it didn't really ban cloning.
The confusion over the law has created a dilemma for the scientific community: how to continue research on embryo cells while banning cloning for reproductive purposes. The first one is vital to find cures for degenerative diseases, scientists claim, while the latter is ethically objectionable.
For them, the efforts taken by the government represent the first serious attempt to clarify the separation between the two different types of research here in Europe and in the US.
In America, there is no federal law banning human cloning, according to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), an agency that licenses and monitors all human embryo research in Britain.
In Europe, there is a "mixed picture," says HFEA spokesman James Yeandel. "In Germany, all forms of embryonic research are prohibited. In France, embryonic research is theoretically permitted if it "benefits" the embryo. But that, in effect, is a ban.
Despite the legal loophole in Britain, Mr. Yeandel says the authority remains "proud" of the legislation in Britain. "We were the first in the world to introduce laws governing the creation of embryos outside the body [in 1990] and we are the first organization of its kind in the world."
He adds that unlike Europe, Britain is taking steps to clarify the situation.
"Britain is ahead of Europe in terms of what you can do here," says Ian Gibson, a member of the ruling Labour Party government. "You can't do therapeutic cloning [stem-cell research] in Europe. …