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Court may upend Parliament’s action to quickly legalize embryonic cloning

LONDON (BP)–A British pro-life party was given a court’s go-ahead Jan. 26 for a full judicial review into current fertilization law, a move that could foil the recent decision by Parliament to legalize the cloning of human embryos, according to a CNSNews.com report.

It will also be the first time in history in which the legal status of the cloned human embryo will be examined in court, Bruno Quintavalle, director of the Prolife Alliance, said.

If Britain’s High Court rules in favor of the group’s submission, the government may have to go back to the drawing board and submit primary legislation to have cloning and manipulation of early stage human made legal.

The upper House of Lords on Jan. 22 voted in favor of new regulations to allow the cloning of human embryos for medical research, following its approval by the House of Commons late last year.

During the Jan. 22 debate, the government was criticized for rushing the measure through by making it an unamendable order rather than using the normal legislative procedure.

The decision was to allow researchers to use embryos up to 14 days old — both cloned ones and “spares” from in vitro fertilization treatment — to harvest special “stem cells” cells which they hope will help treat degenerative diseases.

The government sought to placate concerns by saying it would also bring forward legislation banning “reproductive cloning” — the full-scale cloning of people — and British researchers looked set to be issued with licenses to begin the controversial work late this year.

But the new development could take the government back to square one.

Some months back, the Prolife Alliance submitted an application for a full judicial review of the government’s decision to accept a report by its chief medical officer, who recommended that embryonic cloning and stem cell research be allowed.

The group claimed that the foundational law on fertilization in the United Kingdom, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990 — on which the new government regulations hinge — contains no provisions covering cloned embryos.

The technology that produces cloned embryos, the Prolife Alliance said, had not even existed when the law was passed in 1990.

The bottom line is that, at the moment, the existing law doesn’t make cloning illegal at all, it argued, and for the past 10 years researchers could have cloned embryos without breaking the law. By promising now to pass another law specifically outlawing reproductive cloning, the government was effectively admitting this.

Because of this situation, the Prolife Alliance said it believes that “only primary legislation can cover adequately the complex issues in question.”

On Jan. 26, the Prolife Alliance was told that a preliminary hearing into the matter was unnecessary as a full hearing before the High Court has been granted. No date has yet been set.

Quintavalle told CNSNews.com the court decision is highly significant.

“It is an acknowledgement that the complex legal challenge is valid, and were we as claimants to obtain a positive judgment at the forthcoming hearing, everything that has been deliberated in the House of Commons and House of Lords would have to be revisited as primary legislation.”

That means the government would have to draft a bill and nurse it through committee stages and several readings of both houses, with full debates, CNSNews.com reported.

“This could be one of the most interesting legal cases for a very long time,” Quintavalle said. “It will be the first case in history where the legal status of the cloned human embryo will come under discussion.”

The British Department of Health has asked for five months to prepare its response. Quintavalle expressed surprise that the government should need so much time to come to grips with an issue it claims to be completely well-informed about.

“Who could feel confident that these people are competent to judge all the other issues at stake in the new regulations?” he asked.

“How blatantly obvious it must now appear to an alarmed public that these new regulations — of world-shattering implication — have been rushed through Parliament in the most superficial manner.”

During Jan. 22’s debate in the House of Lords, several lawmakers brought up the Prolife Alliance case.

Lord Rawlinson, a Conservative peer, said it was “remarkable behavior” that the government was asking the House of Lords to vote on new regulations four days before a case was to be heard that could ultimately decide that ministers did not have the power to enforce them.

If the court ruled in favor of the applicants — the Prolife Alliance — he said, it would “put a bombshell under these regulations.”

The case to be put before the High Court is based on two points.

The one is that the 1990 law defines human embryos as ones in which “fertilization is complete.”

But the applicants argue that the process of cloning, or cell nuclear replacement, does not constitute fertilization in its scientifically understood sense, and so cloned embryos are not covered by the act.

The second argument relates to the fact that the law says the age of an embryo is calculated from the day on which “the gametes are mixed.”

In cloning, however, there is at most only one gamete. A gamete is a cell able to unite with another in sexual reproduction.

For both these reasons, the Prolife Alliance believes the existing law does not cover cloned embryos.

A spokesman for the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority — the government body that oversees the law and will issue licenses for cloning — said Jan. 26 it believes cloned embryos are covered by the law.

“An embryo created by cell nuclear replacement is considered … to still be an embryo under the act,” he said in response to queries.

“It has the potential if implanted into the womb to become a baby and an individual. That’s the legal advice that we have received.”
Goodenough is the London bureau chief for CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Patrick Goodenough