More MS news articles for July 2001

If the U.S. Won't Lead, the U.K. Will

Sunday, July 15, 2001; Page B02
By Arlene Judith Klotzko

LONDON -- Here in Britain, stem cell research has been high on the political agenda for more than two years. If the United States falters -- if the government decides not to allow federal funding of stem cell research -- the United Kingdom will take the lead. About that there is no question.

Without government involvement, such research will proceed in the United States, but it will be a far weaker and more dangerous effort conducted in private laboratories and thus immune from rigorous scientific and ethical oversight. By contrast, Britain's 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act provides comprehensive regulation of in vitro fertilization treatment, of donated eggs and sperm, and of embryo research, and it allows the creation of human embryos for such research.

An amendment to the act, which became law in January, has expanded the list of permissible uses for embryos to allow stem cell research and therapy, as well as the creation of human embryos by cloning -- using the technique that gave us Dolly the sheep but stopping short of implanting the clones in a woman's uterus, which will be prohibited by a new law. These cloned embryos will only be used as the source of stem cells -- and through them cells and tissues that are an immunological match for the donor.

The proposal now under consideration by President Bush is much more modest than the British arrangement. It simply allows for research on stem cells derived by others from so-called surplus embryos -- those leftover after in vitro fertilization and destined to be discarded.

According to recent polls, the American public backs this use of surplus embryos. Fifty-seven percent of abortion opponents (including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch) and 72 percent of Roman Catholics support it. There is no such consensus, however, behind creating embryos from eggs and sperm for research purposes -- as a private clinic in Norfolk, Va., announced it had done last week. And there is certainly no consensus for cloning embryos purely for the purpose of harvesting their stem cells, despite the revelation this week that such an effort has been underway (under wraps) at a Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technology -- the same company that several years ago brought news of experiments fusing cow eggs with human nuclei.

Britain's licensing procedure is a fine example of how to legislate against such cowboy science. The proposal that the National Institutes of Health has put forward for Bush to approve brings with it stringent scientific and ethical oversight of any American scientist who receives federal money.

Americans can learn from the British about the benefits of regulation, oversight and consensus building in this field. But the determination about where to draw the moral and legal lines in the United States belongs in the American context -- and will thus be for Americans to make, not import.

Arlene Judith Klotzko, writer in residence at the London Science Museum, is the author of "The Cloning Sourcebook" (Oxford University Press).

© 2001 The Washington Post Company