How to talk about cloning without talking about cloning
Public discourse in the UK

by Sarah Sexton

first published 10 December 2000


When Dolly the cloned sheep was announced in early 1997, the government in the UK, Dolly’s birthplace, joined in the chorus of assertions from around the world that cloning techniques must never be applied to humans. Yet in August 2000, it recommended that the law be amended to allow the first stages of embryo cloning and related research to go ahead legally. The Parliament, however, did not vote on whether to allow human embryo cloning or not, but on whether to extend the purposes of embryo research.

Analysis of some trends in the public discourse on human cloning indicate the effort that has gone into focusing the debate on certain issues while omitting others. This article provides a brief resume of some government, institutional and media responses to human cloning, interspersed with reflections on these trends and omissions.



When Dolly the cloned sheep was announced in early 1997, the government in the UK, Dolly's birthplace, joined in the chorus of assertions from around the world that cloning techniques must never be applied to humans. The Minister for Public Health stated in June 1997 that the government regarded "the deliberate cloning of human beings as ethically unacceptable".

Yet in August 2000, it recommended that the law be amended to allow the first stages of embryo cloning and related research to go ahead legally, subject to a vote by Members of Parliament which is expected within the next few months. The Parliament, however, will have no debate or vote on whether to allow human embryo cloning or not, just on whether to extend embryo research or not.

Analysis of some trends in the public discourse on human cloning over the past three to four years indicate the effort that has gone into focusing the debate on certain issues while omitting others. This article provides a brief resume of some government, institutional and media responses to human cloning, interspersed with reflections on these trends and omissions. Even though the vote is imminent, efforts to manipulate the public and parliamentary debate continue, suggesting that a change in the law is not a foregone conclusion.

Moreover, the human cloning discourse within the UK has ramifications beyond cloning and beyond the UK. Human cloning techniques, for whatever purposes, whether legal or not, are unlikely to become a routine part of mainstream healthcare, even in the still public systems of Western Europe or the privatised ones of the United States and even if the current predominant claim of "benefits" - creating in the laboratory body-compatible cells to replace failing cells or organs - are ever realised and safety concerns (such as tumours) allayed. Yet the changing discourse may be instructive for other genetic and reproductive technologies which do not seem so obviously controversial.

And while the UK is not the world's top player in biotechnology or in cloning research, UK regulation of human genetics and embryo research is often regarded elsewhere as exemplary. The country does not ban all research, nor does it have no rules at all. Instead, it supposedly strikes a "sensible" middle ground, forbidding what is generally considered most reprehensible while controlling through licences the rest. It is perceived as strict in its enforcement of regulation and transparent in its publication of data. As a government report on cloning acknowledged, "the UK enjoys a leading international position in the resolution of these difficult questions". Thus legislation and practices in Britain have effects far beyond its island shores.

Stimulating or channelling public debate?

In January 1998, almost a year after Dolly the cloned sheep was announced, the British government produced a consultation document, "Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine". The document was issued by a four-person Cloning Working Group under the auspices of two unelected permanent government bodies: the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.1 The four members of the Working Group had all expressed pro-cloning views before joining the group; two of them had associations with pharmaceutical companies actively pursuing commercial developments resulting from genetic research.2 The main conclusion of the resulting report, published in December 1998 and acknowledged by its authors to be a "limited enquiry into cloning", was that two further purposes for which embryo research can legally be carried out in Britain should be added on to the five purposes which are currently permissible: "the development of therapeutic treatments for diseased or damaged tissues or organs"; and "the development of methods of therapy for mitochondrial disease".3

One stated aim of the consultation was "to stimulate wider informed debate on this issue," yet it was explicitly "directed primarily to specialists drawn from organisations with scientific, legal, clinical and ethical interests", not the wider general public.

Despite its focus on new ethical issues raised if research into human embryo cloning was to be permitted (a blunt foreclosure of debate of "old" ethical issues such as permitting any research on embryos, even in the light of new developments), there were no ethics specialists, social scientists or members of the general public among the Cloning Working Group.

A further hint that a certain kind of debate was the goal of this consultation exercise came at the end of the document: "We will also be advising Ministers on ways to build public confidence in and understanding of new developments in genetic techniques", a statement which assumes that if the public are sceptical or opposed to a technique, it must be that they do not understand it but can be "educated" out of their "irrational" fears. And the government ministers it was to advise were those at the Department of Trade and Industry, an indication that cloning is as much a commercial issue as a scientific, legal, clinical, ethical and societal one. Yet no questions were raised in the consultation document about commercial considerations, nor the intersection between commercial and ethical issues.

The topics of the debate were also circumscribed. The working group welcomed "your comments on how the technology might actually develop", but not how and why it might be halted or how public resources might be put elsewhere to pursue the public health goals.

The consultation posed the question, "Are there any medical or scientific areas that might benefit from research involving the creation of a cloned human embryo?" but nowhere raised parallel questions about medical and scientific areas that might be hindered by such research, let alone social harms.

Wanted: An application for human embryo cloning

The British government did not immediately follow the recommendations of this Consultation, despite media expectations to the contrary. In the wake of the storm of controversy in Britain over genetically engineered crops and food, it had become obvious that proponents of human embryo cloning techniques and other genetic applications would need at least tacit public acceptance of their projects in order to proceed. As a 1999 report from University College London concluded, "The rate at which the general public can be reassured about the underlying technology is likely to be the single most important factor influencing the rate of uptake of genetic technology for health care."4

In January 1999, such acceptance would have been unlikely, not least because of widespread public opposition to genetically engineered crops and food. The government and others seemed concerned that such opposition might extend to the biotechnology industry as a whole, which in Britain is dominated by pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies. Indeed, the public affairs director of the national BioIndustry Association commented that all the Associations' members were "afraid of a knock-on effect on other areas". The chief executive of biopharmaceutical company Chiroscience stated that "There is a crisis of confidence in the regulatory process [concerning genetically engineered crops and food] which we do not want to spread into the medical field".5

Thus, human embryo cloning was handed over to a civil servant, the Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson, in what many commentators viewed as a "holding operation" until the government and certain sections of the scientific community had established a better political climate in which to proceed. Donaldson convened an Expert Advisory Group on Therapeutic Cloning whose composition leant heavily towards scientific and medical expertise. The 14 professionals, all men, were primarily from the disciplines of medicine and genetics with the exceptions of a lawyer and a professor of ethics in medicine.

Instead of another consultation document, the Chief Medical Officer issued a one-page letter containing several questions. These were directed only towards "scientists and organisations active in the areas of cloning, stem cell and/or embryo research" - even though the government had cited "public concern" as the reason for having another consultation. The remit of this second group seemed more specific than the first: "to consider the pros and cons of therapeutic cloning". In other words, to undertake a supposedly scientifically neutral risk-benefit analysis.

During 1997 and 1998, most popular reports on cloning techniques still focused on the potential replication of existing people, adults or children, dead or alive. As Dr David King of GenEthics News pointed out, cloning "appears to be a scientific technique looking for an application".6 Indeed, one of the main conclusions of research commissioned by the Wellcome Trust into public perspectives on human cloning during 1998 was that members of the public were less concerned about the technicalities of how Dolly has been cloned than with why.7 By 1999, however, an overarching application had been found: stem cell research to treat degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, strokes and multiple sclerosis,

This was the clear focus of this second group's report duly submitted to the government, which was released, some say intentionally, only in August 2000, three weeks after Parliament had broken up for the summer holidays. The report is entitled "Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility: A Report from the Chief Medical Officer's Expert Group Reviewing the Potential of Developments in Stem Cell Research and Cell Nuclear Replacement to Benefit Human Health". Note that there is no mention of the word "cloning" at all.8 The expert group came to much the same conclusions as the first Cloning Working Group: "the potential advantages of therapeutic cloning - the creation of embryos and 'farming' them for cells for clinical purposes - outweigh any moral or ethical scruples some people may hold".9

The government response, published at the same time as the "Donaldson Report", was to accept its recommendations in full and to announce that it would bring forward legislation where necessary to implement them as soon as possible. It stressed, however, that Members of Parliament would have a free vote on the proposed changes, that is, they could vote as they wished rather than following party political lines. As a commentator wrote in The Times:

"Behind the long gestation of the [Donaldson] Report undoubtedly lies the memory of the GM crops fiasco. The Government was taken by surprise by the intensity of press and public reaction. Ever since it has fought shy of any commitment that might raise similar feeling and might even, heaven forbid, excite the Daily Mail [a popular tabloid newspaper] to a campaign. Hence the careful preparation of the ground, and the promise of a free vote in Parliament".10

Free vote- - on what?

Much emphasis continues to be placed on declaring that Members of Parliament will have a free vote. As a BBC News report stated, "final approval of so-called therapeutic cloning will have to pass a free vote in Parliament first".

But in fact MPs will not have a free vote on whether to allow human embryo cloning. There will in fact be no vote at all on cloning.

Cloning, whether therapeutic or reproductive (see below), is currently neither permitted nor banned at present in the UK. As the Donaldson Report acknowledges, "Research involving the creation an embryo by cell nuclear replacement is not prohibited under the 1990 Act". But as it involves an embryo, it does come under the remit of the HFEA.11 Rather than any change of law, all that is required in the UK for cloning to be legal is for the HFEA to grant a licence to someone requesting to clone human embryos.

The HFEA has stated since January 1998 that it is now prepared to license research involving nuclear replacement of eggs.12 Its assessment that no change of the law is required for cloning to go ahead but simply an HFEA licence thus makes a mockery of the whole process of consultation and wider public debate. It suggests that, from the outset, the HFEA has decided that cloning should go ahead (albeit for specific purposes) and confirms the lack of democratic decision-making.13

Legal reproductive cloning also relies at present on an HFEA decision, although the Authority has indicated that it would not licence any centre wishing to produce whole human copies. The first Cloning Working Group recommended that the government introduce a legal ban so that "reproductive" cloning would not depend upon an HFEA decision, as "therapeutic" cloning now does. But the second working group thought that relying on the HFEA was sufficient because "additional controls would require a new Act of Parliament".14 The government has, however, "sent scores of letters to voters", declaring that it will introduce such legislation, a tactic scorned by at least one Member of Parliament:

"As there has been no suggestion that reproductive cloning would be introduced, that claim is obviously a defence tactic - a smokescreen designed to obscure Government policy that supports the manufacture of clones for the production of cells for other purposes."15

What MPs will vote on is whether to amend existing legislation, the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, so as to permit an extension of the purposes of embryo research. The goal of such research would be to extract stem cells to implant into people with degenerative conditions. Assuming the technique could be realised, the embryos, cloned or otherwise, from which the cells would be extracted would be destined not to remain research subjects but to become raw material. As Donald Bruce of the Society, Religion and Technology Project of Protestant Church of Scotland wrote in the Roman Catholic journal, The Tablet, "the use of cloning technology on embryos endorses a radically different use of the human embryo from that currently allowed in research ... Cloning technology ... would use the embryo as a source of body cells. This is a very different notion both scientifically and ethically. It reduces the embryo to a mere resource".16

The 1984 report of the Warnock Committee, which provided much of the basis for the 1990 HFE Act, stated that "the embryo of the human species ought to have a special status" enshrined in legislation, a status which is not the same as that of a living child or an adult, but that nonetheless meant that human embryos should not be used "frivolously or unnecessarily". (Given the extent to which chemicals implicated in the causation of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are emitted into the air and food chain with little regulation, the "unnecessarily" of current proposals could be questioned.) Bruce points out that, if the government proposals go ahead, "it is hard to see how ... the embryo would retain the 'special status' afforded it by the 1990 Human Embryo and Fertilisation Act."

What's in a name?

The changing descriptive terms used to discuss human embryo cloning during the past three to four years in Britain warrant further consideration. As Wellcome Trust research into public perspectives on human cloning concluded, "the language chosen when describing scientific research has a major impact on participants' responses to the ideas." For instance, "gene therapy" was viewed far more positively than "genetic engineering" or "genetic research". Gene therapy "sounds quite friendly" said one participant.

The first government consultation document issued in January 1998 introduced some of the terms of the discourse, not least "reproductive cloning" and "therapeutic cloning". These are not different human cloning techniques; the difference is in their potential end use: reproductive cloning for the replication of existing human beings; therapeutic cloning for anything else which does not result in a baby.

Ever since, "reproductive cloning" has been repeatedly described as abhorrent, while "therapeutic cloning" has become "morally unobjectionable" as it is obviously, even tautologically, for "beneficial" purposes. Such value-laden adjectives pre-set the terms of the discourse and close down avenues of exploration. Who could possibly be against treatments, therapies and benefits? Who could morally oppose making sick people better? (Wellcome Trust research, however, decided to avoid the term "therapeutic cloning" because it "might obscure a deeper insight into participants' attitudes".)

One effect of the linguistic division is that the fact that research into one paves the way for the other is obscured. Also obscured is the fact that research into the cloning of human embryos, even if they are destroyed at 14-days-old under current UK law, is also research into how to engineer humans genetically, that is, into adding or replacing genes in a cell's nucleus before it becomes part of an embryo. The main aim of the overall research which resulted in Dolly, after all, was not to replicate adult sheep, but to engineer mammals with human genes so as to obtain human proteins cheaply in large quantities from their milk to be sold as pharmaceutical drugs.

The powerful and neat distinction between end uses has allowed legislators and scientific bodies to outlaw (in theory) the replication of human beings while at the same time supporting the research that would make it possible. Once "therapeutic cloning" research has accustomed the public to the idea of cloning for spare organs and the like - the Financial Times estimates a period of five years may be adequate17 - moratoriums on human replication could be reviewed, it is suggested. By that time, it is assumed, the promise of, for example, curing "hundreds of thousands of sufferers of Parkinson's disease" with an "injection of nerve cells grown in a laboratory dish"18 would make the unbreakable links between medical or therapeutic cloning and the replication of humans seem unworthy of concern.

Despite the introduction of the term "therapeutic", however, the word "cloning" still has a ream of connotations in popular understanding which go beyond mere replication of genes in a petri dish or the means by which potatoes or geraniums reproduce themselves or a natural event resulting in identical twins. As the 1998 consultation report acknowledges, "It is clear that the term 'cloning' carries an automatic stigma for many because of its association with imagery such as that portrayed in 'Brave New World'."

Many commentators now strive not to mention the word "cloning" at all. Those of the more scientific bent favour scientific terms. As chief science and technology officer for SmithKline Beecham, for instance, George Poste wrote an opinion piece in Financial Times newspaper about cloning without using the word at all. Instead, he used the technically-correct phrase "somatic cell nuclear transfer".19 (Ironically, such phrases had been tried but abandoned earlier because they suggested associations with discredited nuclear energy.) Another "term more favoured by scientists is 'directed cell culture' or 'specialised cell culture'."20 But as one newspaper editorial pointed out, "When specialist language is substituted for plain English ... one can be sure that the authors are worried about something".

A less technical term which is being increasingly used is "regenerative medicine" which has the double advantage of not using "cloning" while still embracing the connotations of therapy and treatment. Poste, for instance, contends that cloning is central to "this emerging field of regenerative medicine", while a Financial Times correspondent argues that changing the rules on embryo research would herald "the birth of regenerative medicine".21 Regeneration, even more than reproduction, is in some ways appropriate as new life is theoretically extended from old -- although in this case, extending old life by using potential new life as a resource is perhaps a more accurate inversion.

The embryo also has become the subject of linguistic gymnastics. The Parliamentary and public debate during the 1980s which resulted in the first British legislation on embryo research (the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act) yielded the term "pre-embryo" as name for the entity up to 14 days old. This term has now been forgotten; the "pre-embryo" has become "a bundle of cells no bigger than a pinhead". A scientist at the Centre for Genome Research at the University of Edinburgh, Austin Smith, who wants to carry out research on human embryos so as to extract stem cells, says categorically, "the public doesn't understand we are talking about a ball of a hundred cells".22

The comments of sociologist Michael Mulkay about the transition from "embryo" to "pre-embryo" are relevant to this further transition to "a collection of cells". The new terminology, contends Mulkay:

"was intended ... to convey to lay people that the potential subjects of laboratory experiment were not even proper human embryos ... Many of those active within the world of science ... regarded the introduction of this ostensibly technical term into the public debate as an attempt to hide what were really moral and political judgements behind an illusion of scientific objectivity".

The illusion triumphed.

"At the beginning of the debate, most parliamentary speakers insisted that such research was immoral because it involved experimental manipulation of defenceless human individuals. By the end of the debate, most speakers maintained that experimental activity in this field was legitimate because it was, and would continue to be, confined to a minute collection of cells called the 'pre-embryo' which preceded the emergence of the human individual."23

When debating whether to use embryos or not in scientific research, one would expect questions to be raised about when life begins and whether an embryo is a person or not. But whereas even those who believe that a "pre-embryo" is not a human individual acknowledge that the entity is entitled to unique moral respect, cells are just cells which float around everywhere, multiply all the time, die, and so on.

Missing: Eggs and healthcare

As mentioned earlier, British MPs will vote soon on whether to extend legally the purposes of embryo research. Out of this research, it is claimed, will come -- the future tense 'will' is often used instead of the conditional 'may' or 'might' -- personalised replacement cells or tissues which a sick person's immune system would not reject because the original genetic material would come from the person themselves. Invariably missing is mention of where the "enucleated eggs", in which the person's genetic material would be placed, might come from. Presumably women with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's could use their own eggs, although the practicalities and safety implications of getting an older woman's ovaries to ovulate sufficient "high grade" eggs which could then be extracted suggest otherwise. Everyone else would supposedly have to rely upon the neutral "donor egg".

There is already considered to be a "shortage" of donor eggs for women who wish to be pregnant but cannot become so with their own eggs. Egg freezing, although now legally permitted as part of the IVF process in Britain, is not particularly successful. Ice crystals in the outer membrane tend to expand as the egg thaws, thereby rupturing the membrane. How would "surplus" eggs from a woman's IVF treatment be matched up with someone with heart disease or Alzheimer's? Would a woman who wanted a child and who was going through the uncertain process of IVF be prepared to give some of her eggs to someone else, even before she was pregnant? Would financial incentives persuade her? In December 1998, the HFEA ruled that it was permissible for an IVF clinic to waive its fees, usually £2,000 or more per cycle, if a woman agreed to donate half her collected eggs. In July 1999, a private London hospital was offering free sterilisations to women in return for their eggs. There is an incongruity that most people have to pay for their IVF treatment, yet seem to be expected to donate for free their "surplus" embryos.24

At present in the UK, women and men can receive £15 per donation of eggs or sperm and reasonable expenses incurred. Any change in the British law allowing research on human embryos to treat disease, paving the way for personalised replacement tissues, would add to pressure for further changes in the law to allow women to sell their body parts, as already happens in the United States.

Any change in the law extending the purposes of embryo research, and thus extending the associated embryo "shortage", are also likely to increase support for work on how to mature human eggs in the laboratory outside a woman's body. The 1998 consultation report acknowledges that any cloning project "would require a source of oocytes [eggs] donated for research which at present are not widely available". Its solution, however, is clearly to countenance research to manufacture such eggs: "In vitro techniques for maturing very immature oocytes from human ovaries are being devised, and these could possibly provide a source of enucleated oocytes adequate for research use".

Added to this pressure are now comments from scientists that even the surplus embryos from IVF are not of "high enough quality".25 As Austin Smith of the Centre for Genome Research at the University of Edinburgh said, "We're starting from a population which has been selected to have fertility problems ... we're getting the worst possible set". There may also be increased pressure to presume consent to research rather than to ask for it specifically. As Austin Smith complains, "We are not getting access to good embryos that are just being thrown away".26

The problem of egg "shortages" is occasionally raised in reports and debates, although solutions are left wanting. What is never raised in debates about the health benefits that might accrue from this research, however, is the question of how access to such benefits might be guaranteed, particularly in a limited healthcare system.

Moreover, when Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer and most of the conditions usually given as examples of diseases which might be treated by stem cells are highlighted, what is not mentioned is what causes the various cells in the body to behave abnormally or to cease functioning the first place. Genetic predisposition may be mentioned, but the cause of cell malfunction is left out of the description. In many cases of Parkinson's, for instance, this cause may be a history of exposure to pesticides, herbicides or industrial solvents. A study published this year from the American Academy of Neurology suggests that pesticide use and exposure in the home and garden increase the risk of developing Parkinson's disease. Transplanted cells may replace dying nerve cells in the brain, but they are unlikely to stop whatever is killing them in the first place.

Treatments may well alleviate the symptoms for the few patients who might get transplanted cells -- but a greater benefit to people (but a loss to a for-profit healthcare system) would be to prevent knowable and probable triggers in the first place. There is now an abundance of scientific studies about probable triggers of many cancers and degenerative diseases. Yet these studies and these causes do not enter the discourse.

As British philosopher Mary Midgely says, "Much of the demand for liver transplants is due to alcohol. But it is a lot harder to think what to do about alcohol than it is to call for research on transplants".27

Safety issues such as embryonic stem cells triggering tumours (documented in biomedical literature) rarely enter the public discussion.

Is embryo research the most effective way of improving the health of the public? Research published this year from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates that thousands of people die prematurely each year in Britain because of unemployment, child poverty, and inequality of income and wealth - all factors directly related to government policies, legislation and the allocation and use of public money.

Why the push?

Despite what seem to be intense efforts to channel the public discourse on cloning within the UK in certain directions and away from others, many members of the public are still not swayed and have queried: why the push? Many of those in favour of human embryo cloning and of legalising embryo stem cell research point to their undoubtedly genuine desire to ease human suffering, both of patients and their carers. Yet other factors are also at work which are rarely explored. A few comments give a hint as to what these might be.

IVF doctor Robert Winston writes that Britain led the world in reproductive research, but that "now there are chances to actually save lives [through using stem cells derived from cloned embryos], other countries are overtaking us".28 A Financial Times correspondent is explicit: "If parliament approves the recommendations, the UK will be in the forefront of this rapidly developing field",29 another likewise: "a change in the regulations governing the use of human embryo cells could ... put the UK back at the forefront of cloning research".30

The race is not against time because people are dying but against others who may get into the business first. Concludes the Financial Times, a change in the UK law represents "a chance to extend embryo research into regenerative medicine [which] would put the UK ahead of the US".31

Thus as an MP said recently in a Parliamentary debate hurriedly convened to counter objections that MPs had not had sufficient opportunity to discuss cloning and embryo stem cell research:

"We are not debating whether embryonic stem cell research should happen ... Whether we like it or not, the research is already happening in the United States, and the legal system and regulations there will permit it to continue. The pharmaceutical industry is probably one of the world's most international industries. The question is not about whether to continue down this route in the fight against degenerative disease, but whether we want to take the moral and ethical decisions that will foster that research here in the United Kingdom ... We are not talking about balancing the moral argument for research against the moral hazard of exploiting embryos, but about balancing the moral hazard of exploiting embryos ... against the risks to our biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry of not proceeding ... The question is ... whether we ... wish to sanction [such research] in order to promote our pharmaceutical and biotechnological research base."32

Phrased this way, "moral" issues take on a different hue with which even supporters of cloning and embryo stem cell research seem uncomfortable: "It is not good enough ... to say that because our biotechnology industry needs to be supported we should allow it to do shady things".33

Hard commercial realities do not sit comfortably with researchers' belief that their work will have medical benefits. As Lori Knowles has concluded of the "concern for global justice" displayed by Geron, the US company which financed and patented the isolation of human embryo stem cells and which has bought up Roslin's cloning division, Roslin-Biomed:

"We know that Geron wants to reduce human suffering, but it also needs to respond to the pressures of the market and has an obligation to give its shareholders the best return on their investment. Let's be candid. We should simply admit that access to medical resources, decent public health, and global justice cannot be easily attained if medical research is committed to private property and profit making."34

The British Prime Minister and others have indicated that public money will be spent on embryonic stem cell research, if the law is changed. "It is essential" argues Austin Smith of Edinburgh University's Centre for Genome Research, "to have a public research effort and not leave everything to private American funding", even though the amount of public money is relatively small compared to that which corporations can put up. After all, "the world's leading stem cell research groups are supported by US biotechnology companies".35

UK public money supported Roslin's cloning work, including its patents which have been handed over to a US private company.36 Publically-funded research may well turn out merely to subsidise private US funding rather than to counter it. Even an MP in favour of using embryonic stem cells for personalised tissue replacements acknowledge that "this is a global debate, which is necessary to ensure benefits extend across the planet on an equal basis, and that multinational corporations do not engineer the debate to reap financial profits."

A public debate which focuses solely on new ethical issues or on determining who has the most moral scruples brushes aside fundamental political, economic, social - and moral - issues.

Notes and references

1 The HGAC was established in December 1996 as a non-statutory advisory body. Its remit is to provide independent advice to UK Health and Industry Ministers on issues arising from developments in human genetics that have social, ethical and/or economic consequences.

The HFEA was established as a statutory body in August 1991 as a result of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Its principal tasks are to license and monitor the clinics that carry out in vitro fertilisation, donor insemination and human embryo research. The HFEA regulates the storage of gametes and embryos and keeps a register of all licensed treatments carried out in the UK. It also keeps under review information about the development of human embryos and the provision of treatment services and activities governed by the 1990 HFE Act. As of December 1998, there were 24 licensed embryo research projects in Britain at 18 different centres.

2 Anne McLaren was the principal research associate for the Wellcome/CRC (Cancer Research Campaign) Institute; George Poste was the chief science and technology officer for SmithKline Beecham. The other two members of the Cloning Working Group were Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, Chair of the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing and a member of the Human Genetics Advisory Committee, and Professor Christine Gosden, Professor of Medical Genetics and the University of Liverpool and a member of the HFEA.

The consultation document stated at the outset that embryo cloning research could "offer a greater insight into the origins of cancer". The Wellcome Trust has been a major contributor to the human genome project. British government figures indicate that, in 1996, more than 12,000 tons of cancer-causing chemicals were discharged by the country's factories, a figure which dropped to only 10,000 tons for 1998. The third worst emitter of carcinogens in 1996 and in 1998 was Glaxo Wellcome's pharmaceutical factory at Ulverston, Cumbria.

SmithKline "probably has more genetic information than any other company in the world". The company is considered to have led the pharmaceutical industry into genomics - discovering how genes work together to cause disease - through its 1993 collaborative agreement with Human Genome Sciences, a leading US biotech company. SmithKline has also been most active in building up resources in bioinformatics: the use of information technology to make sense of the vast volumes of genetic and biological data pouring out of the research laboratories. It was one of the main lobbiers for legislation explicitly allowing industrial patents to be granted on genes, such as the proposed EU biotech patent directive.

See Green, D., "Drugs hit gene gridlock", Financial Times, 7-8 February 1998; Cookson, C., "Combination creates R&D powerhouse", Financial Times, 2 February 1998, p.20.

3 "Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine, A Report from the HGAC and HFEA, Department of Trade and Industry, December 1998.

Under the 1990 HFE Act, embryo research requires a licence from the HFEA, which may grant such a licence only if the research is for the following purposes:

  • to promote advances in the treatment of infertility;
  • to increase knowledge about the causes of congenital disease;
  • to increase knowledge about the causes of miscarriage;
  • to develop more effective techniques of contraception; and
  • to develop methods for detecting the presence of gene or chromosome abnormalities in embryos before implantation.

4 Richmond, M.H., The Implications Of Genetics And Genomics For Healthcare And The Pharmaceutical Industry, School of Public Policy, University College London, London, January 1999, p.78

5 quoted in Cookson, C. and Pilling, D., "Drug companies find food fears hard to swallow", Financial Times, 18 February 1999, p.8.

6 King, D., "Why human cloning research should not be funded", GenEhics News, Issue 21, Dec/Jan 1998, p.8. GenEhics News, PO Box 6313, London N16 0DY, UK. E-mail Website:

See also Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering (CAHGE), website:

7 Wellcome Trust, Public Perspectives On Human Cloning, The Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK. 1998.

8 "Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility", Department of Health, August 2000.

9 Hawkes, N., "Why stem cells make a phoney moral debate: If Dolly was all right, so are the latest developments in embryonic research", The Times, 17 August 2000, p.22.

10 ibid.

11 The HFEA was not itself sure that cloning did come under its remit because fertilisation is not involved in the creation of cloned embryos. It took legal advice and concluded that a cloned embryo was within its jurisdiction. See Cloning Working Group Report, op. cit. 3, p.12.

12 "The HFEA's policy is that it will not license any research which has reproductive cloning as its aim. However, it would consider licence applications for other types of research involving embryo splitting or nuclear replacement in eggs, provided that the research falls within one of the purposes specified by the HFE Act, or any regulations, which may be made by the Secretary of State for Health". See "Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine, A Consultation Document", HGAC and HFEA, section 5.4, January 1998, p.11.

13 In fact, the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act does expressly prohibit one type of cloning technique, namely, "the nuclear substitution of any cell whilst it forms part of an embryo". Because the Dolly technique involves nuclear substitution into an egg and not into an embryo, it is not specifically covered by this prohibition. But it could be argued that the intent of the exclusion was to prohibit genetic engineering and nuclear substitution where embryos were involved, and that the specific wording related to the state of scientific research in 1990 rather than in 2000, thus the Dolly technique could be covered.

One MP recently stated that "A number of members of the [HFE] Authority are also involved in the IVF industry, and for many years parliamentarians have complained of the fact that the poacher is playing gamekeeper. The history of the authority shows it to be incapable of policing cloning, which could have sinister connotations". See Ann Winterton, MP, "Embryology", debate in the House of Commons, 17 November 2000, Hansard Column 1207. Website:

14 "Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility", op. cit. 8, p.4.

The first Cloning Working Group did qualify its recommendation, however, by stating how difficult such a ban might be on either a national or international level:

"The Report reviews international developments relating to cloning and highlights the difficulties there can be in finding mutually acceptable and internationally agreed definitions for even quite simple concepts".

It also qualifies its support for international bans on reproductive cloning by prioritising "therapeutic cloning":

"It will be for the Government to determine the extent to which any further specific international initiative are supported by the United Kingdom ... It will be necessary to consider how carefully international initiatives have been drafted lest they should preclude the therapeutic use of cell nucleus replacement as well as human reproductive cloning."

See "Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine", op. cit. 3, p.4, pp.27-8.

15 Ann Winterton, MP, "Embryology", debate in the House of Commons, 17 November 2000, Hansard Column 1201.

16 16. Bruce, D., "My alarm over cloning", The Tablet, 26 August 2000, pp.1126-7.

17 "Time to act on cloning", editorial, Financial Times, 12 January 1998.

18 "Brave new world ... needs brave new ethics", editorial, The Guardian, 9 December 1998, p.23.

19 Poste, G., "How embryos can save lives", Financial Times, 1 June 2000, p.23.

20 Gibson, I., "A vote for cloning", The Guardian, 15 August 2000, p.19.

21 Cookson, C., "The birth of regenerative medicine", Financial Times, 19-20 August 2000, p.9.

22 Meek, J., "Scientist urges law to boost embryo supply", The Guardian, 8 May 2000, p.9.

23 Mulkay, M., The embryo research debate: Science and the politics of reproduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997, p.31; pp.132-133.

24 Analyses of economics and power politics usually get left out of calls for more public debate. The ethics advisory board of the US company, Geron, averted its gaze from issues of the classification, control or commercialisation of cells derived from aborted fetuses or "leftover" IVF embryos. Lori Knowles points out that this omission "only highlights the tension between the altruism individuals are supposed to exhibit by donating their tissue for research and the current patent system, which encourages companies to stake lucrative property claims in that research". Knowles argues further that it is simply inconsistent to argue that couples should act altruistically and donate spare embryos or aborted fetuses because commercialising embryos is wrong, while permitting corporations and scientists to profit financially from cells derived by destroying those embryos. See Knowles, L.P., "Property, Progeny and Patents", Hastings Center Report, Vol. 29, No. 2, March-April 1999. p.38. See also Cahill, L.S., "The New Biotech World Order", Hastings Center Report, Vol. 29, No. 2, March-April 1999. p.48.

25 op. cit. 21.

26 op. cit 22.

27 Midgley, M., "Biotechnology and Monstrosity: Why We Should Pay Attention to the 'Yuk Factor'", Hastings Center Report, Vol. 30, No, 5, September-October 2000, pp.7-15.

28 Winston, R., "Don't stop science", The Guardian, p.16.

29 Cookson, C., "Government to back embryo cloning", Financial Times, 17 August 2000, p.1.

30 Firn, D., "Following in the footsteps of Dolly", Financial Times, 12-13 August 2000, p.4.

31 Ibid.

32 Philip Hammond, MP, "Embryology", debate in the House of Commons, 17 November 2000, Hansard Column 1187-1188. The UK biotech industries have threatened to move abroad if constraints on research are not lifted.

33 Peter Brand, MP, "Embryology", debate in the House of Commons, 17 November 2000, Hansard Column 1194.

34 Knowles, L.P., op. cit. 24. Roslin Bio-Med was set up in 1998 to commercialise the cloning research of the Roslin Institute, except for the production of human proteins and nutriceuticals and the milk of transgenic animals. It is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Geron.

35 op. cit. 29.

36 The Roslin Institute has received at least £7.4 million of public money for its cloning research from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the European Union. The Department of Trade and Industry gave £2.3 million in 1996-1997; £2.5 million in 1997-1998; and £2.6 million in 1998-1999 "to keep Britain ahead in this controversial field". See Atkinson, D., "Taxpayer foots £3m cloning research bill", The Guardian, 21 July 1998, p.19.