London (CNSNews.com) - Britain said Thursday it would become the first country in the world to outlaw the cloning of human beings, but pro-life campaigners called the announcement an attempt to mislead voters, arguing that limited embryonic cloning recently legalized in Britain was in fact tantamount to human cloning.
UK Health Secretary Alan Milburn in a speech in northern England announced that legislation to ban "reproductive cloning" would be introduced within months.
The practice is already ostensibly covered in secondary legislation here, restricted to scientists who must apply for licenses. But the government has decided to enact new legislation in a bid to quell fears raised by recent advances in genetic technologies, and by Britain's recent legalization of "therapeutic cloning."
The pro-lifers attacked attempts to draw a distinction between "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning, saying both were unacceptable ethically.
"Reproductive" cloning is the manufacture of a human being in a laboratory by inserting the genetic material of a born person into a woman's egg that has been stripped of its own. It's envisaged the cloned embryo would then be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother, and carried to term.
A controversial Italian scientist recently caused an international storm when he announced he would attempt this shortly, and in doing so thanked Prime Minister Tony Blair for making it possible to go ahead with his own plans.
Britain earlier this year became the world's first country to authorize what the government calls "therapeutic cloning." An early-stage human being is likewise cloned in a lab, but in this case the embryo is destroyed after 14 days, once researchers have harvested it for stem cells - immature cells with the ability to transform into other types which may be used to help treat serious diseases.
For those who believe life begins at the moment of conception, the primary difference between the two is the lifespan of the two cloned beings.
What the new legislation would actually ban, said the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, was "the introduction of cloned human embryos into wombs of women ... but the creation of human clones for the purposes of destructive experimentation and the extraction of stem cells would still be allowed."
Another pro-life charity, Life, said Thursday Milburn's announcement was "pure political spin, designed to make the government look good in time for the general election," expected within the next several months.
Life's research director, Peter Garrett, said the government was trying to make people believe that therapeutic cloning was not really cloning.
"But of course it is," he said. "It creates copies of born human beings who are allowed to live up to 14 days, when they are cannibalized in order to provide stem cells for research. Those human beings are to be produced with the deliberate intention of destroying them once their stem cells have been plundered.
"Strictly speaking, this procedure is reproductive because it produces human beings who are allowed to develop up to the embryonic stage," Garrett said.
"Far from being the first country to ban human cloning, as some claim, we have become the first to legalize it. The Labor government is the architect of this form of exploitation of human life, not its opponent."
Britain's only overtly pro-life political party, the Pro-life Alliance, added its voice to the criticism, saying in a statement the same government that "approved human cloning" and forced it through parliament last January, now "proudly claims that Britain will be the first country worldwide to ban human cloning."
"The rest of the world will think our country has finally lost its senses and is running round in circles."
"If the government really wants to gain the respect of international communities and conform to ethical standards, it should take note immediately of the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which opposes both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, as does any scientist of integrity," a spokesperson for the Alliance said.
Milburn made his announcement Thursday in the context of a speech also outlining ways in which the government planned to make Britain a world leader in the genetic healthcare revolution.
It would increase the number of health and scientific specialists working in genetics and provide funding for genetics research institutions. Investment would also be made in the field of genetic screening, and women with an inherited risk of breast cancer would be offered free genetic tests.
Milburn gave an assurance that insurance companies would not be able to use the results of genetic tests to discriminate against patients with a genetic predisposition to a serious disease.
Consumer groups have expressed concern that some people may find themselves "uninsurable" or have their premiums hiked because their insurers discover a genetic weakness.
One UK newspaper reported that a consultation paper circulating among insurance companies recently suggested that policies may either have to exclude certain cancers altogether, or premiums would have to rise in general.
Liam Fox, the Conservative Party's health spokesman, said in a recent speech to party activists that the genetic revolution carried "moral, ethical and philosophical consequences which must be confronted."
At the same time, he warned, "there is always the danger of the unpredicted outcome or the unforeseen consequence."
Fox, who holds strong pro-life views, said he believed all reasonable people would accept that "just because we can do something it does not follow we should do it."
He called for the establishment of "a moral and ethical framework within which all citizens are obliged to operate when considering whether scientific boundaries should be pushed back."
Fox said a future Conservative government would as a first step set up a National Ethics Committee.
See Earlier Story:
Cloning Of Human Embryos Passes UK Parliamentary Hurdle (Jan 23, 2001)