Technology

Hurray for Frankenstein!

British parliamentarians welcome the biotech future

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The "Frankenstein Report," is what outraged critics are calling a new report, Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law, that signals welcome sanity on the cloning front in Western world politics. The report was issued on March 24 by the cross-party Science and Technology Committee of the British House of Commons.

What's got the critics' knickers in a twist?

First, the U.K. Members of Parliament (MPs) dare to suggest that a wide range of current and potential interventions in human reproduction can, in fact, be done ethically. For example, the MPs find "no adequate justification for prohibiting the use of sex selection for family balancing." Family balancing means using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select and implant embryos of a specific sex to ensure the desired proportion of girls and boys among your children.

The report also says it's OK to create cloned human embryos for research aimed at producing immune-compatible transplant tissues and cells. British regulatory authorities have already approved human cloning research proposals. The Brits even go as far as suggesting that cloning for human reproduction might be ethically acceptable.

For example, what would be wrong with this scenario? An embryo with a defective gene is created by normal in vitro fertilization. Stem cells are taken from the embryo and the faulty gene is replaced with a healthy one. A nucleus from the corrected embryonic stem cells is then installed in an enucleated egg, which matures into an embryo that is then implanted into his mother's womb. An instant healthy child, thanks to cloning technology.

The MPs' report notes, sensibly, "If there is to be a total prohibition of any form of reproductive cloning, it is important that it is supported by principled arguments why such a technique should be banned even if it were shown to be safe, effective, and reliable." In contrast, here on the other side of the pond, the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics—dominated by bioconservatives—wants a flat ban on all human reproductive cloning.

And in further contrast to these British parliamentarians, our own U.S. Congress saw bills reintroduced on March 17 to criminalize research on both therapeutic (to produce transplant tissues) and reproductive (to produce babies) cloning.

And while the Brit MPs conclude that "embryos can be created specifically for research," the Republican leadership in our Congress is doubtful, although it has just promised to let our representatives vote on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 which would at least allow federal funding for research on embryos left over from infertility treatments.

The report does take note of the concerns of biotech critics, including the eugenics fears expressed by anti-biotech activist groups like Human Genetics Alert: "With the ability to select the characteristics of and even genetically engineer children according to consumers' desires comes the concern that human beings are becoming just another designed object/commodity within the industrial market system." The MPs tartly reply, "If ensuring that your child is less likely to face a debilitating disease in the course of their [sic] life can be termed eugenics, we have no problem with its use."

Finally, and most importantly, the U.K. report rejects the pernicious precautionary principle, which is slowly gaining a foothold in bioethical thinking. The precautionary principle basically argues that nothing should be done until it can be proven absolutely safe. "We do not see why the area of human reproductive technologies should do anything other than proceed under the precautionary principle currently prevalent in scientific, research and clinical practice. This means…that alleged harms to society or to patients need to be demonstrated before forward progress is unduly impeded," write the MPs. In other words, highly speculative fears that sex selection will lead to sexism, or genetic engineering will socially marginalize the disabled, or clones will suffer psychological maladjustments, should not trump the known and sought-after benefits of biotechnological progress.

The good news is that even if the United States does succumb to bioconservatism, you might still be able to seek cutting-edge biotech treatments abroad in Britain. Of course, when you come back, you might be sent to prison for up to 10 years for "importing" illegal biotech treatments, such as a new liver created from stem cells derived from cloned embryos.

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