U.K. Lawmakers Approve Debated Fertility Treatment

British lawmakers voted Monday to approve controversial plans to allow the use of animal-human embryos for research.

BY admin

May 20 2008 12:00 AM ET

British lawmakers
voted Monday to approve controversial plans to allow
the use of animal-human embryos for research.

The proposed
laws, the first major review of embryo science in Britain
for almost 20 years, have provoked stormy debate -- pitting
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and scientists against
religious leaders, antiabortion campaigners, and a
large number of lawmakers.

Other proposals
would simplify approval procedures for so-called ''savior
siblings'' and offer easier access to fertility treatment
for lesbians.

Two days of House
of Commons debate began Monday and on Tuesday will
include the first major vote on revising British abortion
laws since 1990.

Opposition party
chief David Cameron -- and several cabinet ministers --
advocate lowering the 24-week limit for abortions in
Britain. Legislators will vote on whether to retain
the current limit or lower it to 22, 20, or 16 weeks.

Brown has said he
believes scientists seeking to use mixed animal-human
embryos for stem cell research into diseases such as
Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are on a moral mission to
improve, and save, millions of lives.

The process
involves injecting an empty cow or rabbit egg with human
DNA. A burst of electricity is then used to trick the
egg into dividing regularly, so that it becomes a very
early embryo, from which stem cells can be extracted.

Scientists say
the embryos would not be allowed to develop for more than
14 days, and are intended to address the shortage of human
embryos available for stem cell research.

''I believe that
we owe it to ourselves and future generations to
introduce these measures, and in particular to give our
unequivocal backing, within the right framework of
rules and standards, to stem cell research,'' Brown
wrote Sunday in an op-ed piece for The Observer
newspaper.

But opponents
warn that an easing of laws on creating the embryos could
lead to the genetic engineering of human beings.

Legislators voted
336 to 176 against banning research using animal-human
embryos and by 286 to 223 against a separate proposal
covering a specific type of animal-human embryos.

Human Genetics
Alert, a science watchdog opposed to the proposed changes,
claims the laws could lead to the creation of genetically
modified ''designer babies.''

''Once we start
down the road to human genetic modification, it will be
very difficult to turn back,'' the group warns in a briefing
paper for lawmakers.

Opposition
Conservative lawmaker Edward Leigh, who tabled an amendment
seeking to ban the practice, said the technique was a step
too far for science.

''In many ways we
are like children playing with land mines without any
concept of the dangers of the technology that we are
handling,'' he said in the House of Commons.

Dr. Robin
Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at the U.K. National
Institute for Medical Research, said greater understanding
of genetic diseases at the cellular level could speed
the development of treatments.

''We have to be
careful not to overhype it, because we can't promise
anything will work, but if it does work then there will be a
lot more understanding. More understanding is crucial
to developing new treatments,'' he said.

Britain's Human
Fertilization and Embryology law, which regulates all
stem cell and embryology research, was drafted in 1990.

Lawmakers will
vote later Monday on whether to fully authorize the
screening of embryos for genetic characteristics to create
''savior siblings.'' These are cases where parents
seek to have a child with specific non-diseased
characteristics to help a diseased older sibling
through tissue or organ donation.

The proposed laws
are in line with the latest scientific developments and
would provide Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology
Authority with clearer guidelines. The decisions are
currently vulnerable to challenges in court,
Lovell-Badge said.

Proposals to end
the requirement for in-vitro fertilization clinics to
consider the need for a child to have a father will be
debated Tuesday. Advocates say the change is necessary
to enable lesbian couples and single women to gain
easier access to fertility treatment.

Opponents insist
the change fails to acknowledge the role of a father in
a child's life. (AP)

Tags: Health

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