Relax Rules on Embryo Selection, Say UK Lawmakers

Kevin McCandless | Correspondent | Friday, August 10, 2007

Relax Rules on Embryo Selection, Say UK Lawmakers

London ( - A key group of British parliamentarians says parents should be allowed to have babies designed to save older brothers and sisters from diseases.

A joint committee of members of the House of Commons and House of Lords said in a new report that it should be legal to create "savior siblings" to act as blood or tissue donors for older children with illnesses such as sickle-cell anemia.

Under the process, embryos would be created through in-vitro fertilization, tested for their suitability as donors and then transferred to a woman's womb to be carried to term.

Currently, the British government allows the practice only in cases where children have potentially fatal diseases, but the committee said it saw no reason why this shouldn't be extended to other, less serious diseases.

A spokeswoman for the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said only a "handful" of babies have been born in Britain following this procedure since it was first allowed in 2001.

Doctors involved in the creation of savior siblings say it is always a last resort for parents with no other option to save their children. Critics charge that the practice is fundamentally wrong, noting that embryos deemed not suitable are discarded. They also said it clears the way for "designer babies" who are created for looks, intellect or physical abilities.

Josephine Quintavalle, who heads the pro-life advocacy group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said creating savior siblings is a risky and inefficient way of helping children with serious and fatal conditions.

To treat many diseases, stem cells are harvested from umbilical cord blood at birth.

However, Quintavalle said that an exact genetic match is not needed in treating some 70 different conditions. A better use of resources would be to set up a national system of testing and storing umbilical cord blood, she argued.

The committee's report marks one of the final stages of deliberation before parliament debates a controversial piece of legislation, the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill, in the fall.

That bill, which will update the laws dealing with assisted human reproduction, is expected to involve battles over a host of ethical issues.

Among other areas, legislators will decide whether to allow the creation of human-animal embryo hybrids for experimentation, and if doctors should take into account "the need for a father" when helping women conceive through IVF procedures.

Although abortion laws are not mentioned in the current draft of the bill, legislators on both sides of the issue have hinted that they will try to insert amendments to either relax or tighten abortion laws.

A spokesman for the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics said Thursday he was disappointed with the committee's report because it had glanced over the ethical implications on many issues.

Calum MacKellar, director of research for the council, said the committee appeared to have been too conscious of keeping the bioscience industry happy and not concerned enough with the moral status of embryos.

"What scientists have to realize is that they don't make the law," he said. "Society makes the law."

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