British Authorities Relax Rules On 'Designer Babies'

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

London ( - British fertility industry regulators loosened the rules governing embryo testing Wednesday, a move that could result in the creation of more so-called "designer babies" whose tissues could be used to help their siblings.

Embryo testing has been a subject of intense debate in Britain since the case of Zain Hashmi, a boy with a fatal blood disease, came to light two years ago.

The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) agreed to allow doctors treating Zain's parents to try to use a genetic test known as pre-implantation diagnosis to eliminate the chance of a sibling having the disease, along with tissue typing to ensure that the new child's umbilical cord cells could be used to treat Zain.

Until Wednesday, the HFEA had ruled that tissue typing would only be used with pre-implantation diagnosis. But the new ruling raises the possibility that the agency could approve the use of tissue typing on its own in future cases, a move that is expected to create an increase in demand for the procedure.

The ruling came in response to an application by London fertility specialist Dr. Mohamed Taranissi, who has in the past pushed for extensions in fertility law.

Taranissi hopes to use tissue typing to create a sibling for a two-year-old boy from Northern Ireland, Joshua Fletcher, who suffers from a potentially fatal form of anemia.

In a statement, the authority said it regarded tissue typing as a "last resort."

"Faced with potential requests from parents who want to save a sick child, the emotional focus is understandably on the child who is ill. Our job is also to consider the welfare of the tissue matched child which will be born," said HFEA Chairwoman Suzi Leather.

"Our review of the evidence available does not indicate that the embryo biopsy procedure (tissue typing) disadvantages resulting babies," she said. "It also shows that the risks associated with sibling to sibling stem cell donation are low and that this treatment can benefit the whole family."

Pro-life campaigners and genetic watchdog groups condemned the decision. Those groups are worried because tissue typing involves the discarding of embryos that do not pass the test and are deemed unsuitable for implantation in the mother's womb.

"The designer baby may be allowed his or her right to live, but that same right will be denied to his embryonic brothers and sisters," said Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. "These unwanted embryonic siblings could be flushed down the sink, frozen or used for experiments.

"Although one should do everything that is ethical to relieve illness and pain, it cannot be right to destroy human life like this. This unethical procedure undermines any benefit which could come from it," he said.

Josephine Quintavalle, director of the pro-life Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said she was "absolutely shocked that the HFEA sees fit even to deliberate on this matter."

"It simply makes these decisions behind closed doors without any public or parliamentary input whatsoever," she said. "There are perfectly ethical, economical and immediate ways to help sick children, using unrelated donations of cord blood, and this has to be the correct way forward."

The decision was also decried by Human Genetics Alert, an independent watchdog group.

"It is wrong to create a child simply as a means to an end, however good that end might be, because to do so turns that child into an object," said Director Dr. David King. "This violates the basic ethical principle that we should not use people as tools. Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of how reprogenetic technology is turning children into commodities."

The HFEA's decision was welcomed, however, by the British Medical Association and fertility industry advocates. Taranissi, the doctor hoping to use tissue typing, could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with the BBC, he defended the procedure.

"What we are doing is simply helping treat sick children," Taranissi said.

See previous story:
British 'Designer Baby' Re-Ignites Controversy (06/19/2003)

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