London (CNSNews.com) - British lawmakers Friday will debate controversial proposals, already accepted by the government, which if eventually approved will make the UK the first country to allow and finance the cloning of early-stage human beings.
The government has agreed lawmakers may have a free vote on recommendations made earlier this year by the chief medical officer, who said scientists should be allowed to extract "stem cells" from laboratory-created embryos up to 14 days old for the purposes of research.
Researchers hope to be able to use the cells, which are the building-blocks of nerve, blood and bone, to grow tissue for transplant, which could benefit people suffering from diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
While the chief medical officer's report recommended that this be permitted, he said the ban on "reproductive" cloning - the cloning of a human being that would be allowed to develop fully and then be born - should be tightened.
Ahead of Friday's debate, a number of interested parties, including medical bodies, churches and pro-life organizations, have made their positions public.
Roman Catholic bishops in England and Wales have called on their congregants to lobby their constituency MPs, urging a rejection of cloning.
At a meeting this week, the bishops issued a statement saying research on cloned human embryos was both immoral and unnecessary.
"It is immoral because it involves the deliberate creation and destruction of new human lives for the sole purpose of extracting stem cells for research. It strips an individual human life, in its earliest form, of all dignity, reducing it to no more than a commodity, a supply of disposable organic matter.
"It is also unnecessary because other avenues of stem cell research exist which may offer the same potential benefits without the ethical difficulties."
Pro-life advocates are especially concerned about the fact that the embryos being created in a laboratory will, once exploited, be discarded.
Alternatives to the use of embryonic cells that have been mooted in recent months include the use of adult stem cells. These can be obtained, for example, from the brain, placenta, or the umbilical cord of a newborn baby. Citing recent research, some experts believe these have enormous potential.
Some campaigners have argued that, rather than cloning embryos, "spare," existing embryos from in-vitro fertilization treatment could be used. Cloning opponents who don't also have pro-life views suggest cells from aborted babies could also be used.
Friday's debate is likely to emotive. Already, the science spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Evan Harris - an outspoken supporter of cloning for research - slammed Conservatives opposing the matter as representatives of "an extreme, anti-abortion, fundamentalist right-wing party."
But the debate will not lead immediately to a vote on the government's proposals. That is expected to occur before the end of the year
Meanwhile, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has challenged lawmakers to make public their positions on the moral status of the human embryo before that vote takes place.
"A fully grown adult is genetically identical to the one-day old embryo from which he or she grew, whether created through fertilization or via a cloning technique," John Smeaton, the society's director, wrote in a letter to MPs.
British opponents of cloning have also received backing from an unexpected source, the European Union.
The EU Parliament two months ago passed a resolution stressing its ban on all human cloning, and calling on British lawmakers to reject the proposals when it came to a vote.
This week, an EU ethics panel said in a new report that cloning for research would be "premature."
While the apparent benefits of stem-cell transplants were "very promising," the issue needed great care, the European Group of Ethics in Science and New Technologies said.
"There is a wide field of research to be carried out with alternative sources of human cells: from spare embryos, fetal tissues and adult stem cells."
The group, which comprises scientists, theologians and lawyers, called on the EU to provide funds for further research into these alternatives.
The British Medical Association Thursday said it was backing the recommendations of the chief medical officer.
The BMA said it believed research should proceed simultaneously on both adult and embryonic stem cells, until it become clear that adult ones had as wide a potential as those taken from embryos.
Another UK pro-life group, Life, has appealed to Prime Minister Tony Blair to reconsider.
"There is widespread public unease about 'runaway' science, scientists 'playing God' and so on," Life's national chairman, Prof. Jack Scarisbrick, wrote to Blair.
"We ask the government to draw back from a moral Rubicon which many people in this country, as in the rest of the European Union, believe should not be crossed."
See Earlier Story:
New Research Points to Alternatives to Embryonic Cloning (3 Aug. 2000