More MS news articles for February 2001

Human cloning needs regulation

Friday 2 February 2001
The Edmonton Journal

Cloning human tissue, or human beings, poses immense ethical, spiritual and legal dilemmas. Until this year, those moral questions seemed largely hypothetical, the kind that scientists and ethicists could comfortably debate on university campuses. But suddenly, the debate isn't hypothetical -- it's real. And Canadian lawmakers can no longer hide from its practical consequences.

Last week in Britain, the House of Lords gave its approval to a controversial new law that will allow British scientists to clone human embryos for medical research. The law, which only allows scientists to work with cells that are less than 14 days old, is designed to facilitate cutting-edge medical research into stem cells, research that holds the promise of producing treatments for ailments as diverse as Parkinson's disease, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, stroke and diabetes.

Hard on the heels of the new British legislation came an announcement of quite a different kind, from two medical researchers, an Italian physician and an American professor of reproductive physiology. The two fertility specialists have announced plans to begin a commercial clinic, cloning babies for wealthy infertile couples. They claim to have 10 couples on their waiting list, and promised to begin work by the end of this year.

It's time for the Canadian government to stop sticking its head in the sand and come up with some kind of thoughtful legislation to govern the field of human reproductive technologies.

A decade ago, Canada spent $30 million on a thorough royal commission on the subject. The Royal Commission on Reproductive Technology issued its final report in 1993, complete with 293 thoughtful recommendations. The report is still gathering dust.

Eleven years ago, the British established a Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to regulate its genetic researchers. We have no such regulatory body. Our scientists continue to work in a legal vacuum.

It's an intolerable situation. In the first place, we must have state oversight of such ethically sensitive research. Genetic research on human beings touches our deepest human values, and we have a right and a responsibility as citizens to regulate and monitor the kind of research going on in our nation's labs and clinics.

Moreover, we have a responsibility to give our scientists that chance to develop world-class expertise in this burgeoning field. How can they apply for grants, how can they attract graduate students, how can they plan their research projects, if they don't know what they are or aren't allowed to do?

Two years ago, Health Minister Alan Rock pledged to ban human cloning in Canada. But while we do need vigilant regulation of experimentation on human embryos, a blanket ban is not the best strategy. What we need instead are laws and ethical guidelines to prepare for the scientific revolution which is already upon us.

Canada may well want to consider banning for-profit fertility clinics that clone designer babies. But if and when off-shore clinics start offering such services, we won't be able to ban Canadians from having themselves cloned abroad. In that case, we'll need laws to define the legal "parents" of the cloned child, and to determine the rights of that child, and the rights and responsibilities of its progenitors.

As for embryonic and stem-cell research, we need to proceed-- but carefully. Coherent legislation in this area is long overdue. If we want Canadian patients to have access to the best new treatments for conditions like MS and Alzheimer's, we must give Canadian medical professionals the opportunity to do the appropriate cutting-edge research. The brave new world has already arrived. We cannot continue to ignore it. We must respond to its demands, before it overwhelms us.