Clone truths

Why has the UK health secretary made an issue of banning reproductive cloning - when it is already prohibited?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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‘I can confirm today’, said UK health secretary Alan Milburn on 19 April 2001, ‘that the government will legislate in the near future to explicitly ban human reproductive cloning in the UK’.

Speaking at the Institute of Human Genetics in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Milburn’s call for a ban on reproductive (or ‘human’) cloning came amid the announcement of a package of measures designed to make the UK a ‘world leader’ in the ‘genetic revolution’. To this end, the health secretary announced the creation of four genetic ‘knowledge parks’ at a cost of £10million, a £30million package of new investment in NHS genetic services, and £20million to be spent recruiting new medical staff and genetic scientists.

But Milburn was careful to draw a distinction between this broader genetic research and the far more controversial issue of reproductive cloning – hence his statement that ‘human cloning should be banned by law, not just by licence’. Why make such an issue of the need for a legal ban?

As the health secretary stated, human reproductive cloning in the UK is already prohibited ‘because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will not licence it’. ‘The ban is welcome’, he said. Indeed, there are many reasons, to do with limitations of existing research and the consequent risks to human health, why reproductive cloning should currently be prevented. And it is, under the existing regulation of the HFEA.

Concerns about the safety and efficacy of human cloning, then, do not warrant a ban in law. So what has motivated Milburn’s call for one?

In discussing public fears surrounding genetic science, and particularly human cloning, Milburn stated: ‘I believe we need to go further to offer an unequivocal assurance to the public’ that reproductive cloning would never happen. In other words, reproductive cloning should be considered less as a matter of the technology’s safety, and more as a matter of ethics. Even if reproductive cloning made scientific sense, therefore it should be banned on the grounds that it is considered morally wrong.

But what about the potential benefits of reproductive cloning, which are, as yet, unknown? When it becomes safe to do so, scientists should be allowed to explore these benefits. Unlike existing regulations, which to a certain extent weigh up the potential benefits of such research against the human risks, a blanket ban on human cloning would make this research impossible.

In calling for the regulation of reproductive cloning to be taken out of the realm of science, and placed in the realm of morals and ethics, the health secretary is clearly hoping to assuage public fears about cloning. The danger, however, is that raising the need for such a ban will only endorse existing fears about irresponsible scientists and dangerous technology – which risks impeding even that safe and important genetic research currently taking place.

Given Milburn’s concerns that, ‘in some spheres there is the risk of an anti-science view taking hold’, he might have been better advised to show better faith in scientists and scientific regulation himself.

Read on:

For more discussion of genetic research and cloning technologies read:

Let stem cell research begin by Toby Andrew

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Topics Politics


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