Reproductive Cloning, Multi-Parent Babies and Designer Children Coming Soon? – by Peter Bone MP

Today Government legislation in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is going to repeal the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 and open the door for reproductive cloning to take place without the need for fresh primary legislation.

Under Clause 3ZA(2)-(4) of the Bill the Government appears to place very tight restrictions on what type of embryos can be implanted in a woman. The problem arises, however, in Clause 3ZA(5); a loophole that can overturn these restrictions. If the procedure is to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease, the provisions of Clause 3ZA(2)-(4) need not apply, and regulations could allow reproductive cloning and other types of designer babies.

In the 2001 Human Reproductive Cloning Act the Government outlined its position against the controversial technology. Reproductive Cloning uses “somatic cell nuclear transfer” to create animals that are genetically identical. It involves the transfer of a nucleus from a donor adult cell to an egg which has had its nucleus removed. The egg is then treated with either chemicals or electric current and if the egg begins to divide normally it is transferred into the uterus of the surrogate mother where it will develop. A classic example is Dolly the Sheep.

Under proposed new legislation this process could potentially be allowed to create human clones. Regulations could allow an adult cell from a woman with a mitochondrial disease to have a nucleus removed and placed in a donor egg with healthy mitochondria and from there a clone produced (but in this case with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a second woman). This procedure, which would not involve fertilisation and which would remove the need for a man, was suggested some time ago in a report in the BMJ as a potential way to treat mitochondrial disease. Under the Bill, the protection which was previously provided against this procedure by the Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 would no longer be there, as that Act is abolished by Clause 3 (6) and Schedule 8.

Whilst the Government has regularly stated that it does not intend to use the legislation in this Bill to allow reproductive cloning, the repealing of the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 would pave the way for scientists to use reproductive cloning to prevent transmission of mitochondrial disease. No matter what the Government intends there are, unfortunately, some scientists that would welcome legislation allowing reproductive cloning and would look to use it to allow them to experiment with human life further. This problem could be avoided by simply taking away section 3ZA(5).

The second issue is designer babies, one type being “multi-parent”. To prevent mitochondrial diseases caused by faulty mitochondria being passed to offspring, there are currently attempts to make what the press has termed “three parents babies”, where either a donor egg with healthy mitochondria with its nucleus removed is used to house the healthy nucleus from the egg with faulty mitochondria and this reconstructed egg is then fertilised by sperm through IVF; or alternatively, fertilisation occurs first, and is followed by nuclear transfer into an embryo with healthy mitochondria that has had its nucleus removed.

Regulations under section 3ZA(5) could permit these embryo to be placed into the uterus and allowed to develop into a baby. This would be a “three parent baby” created using DNA from 3 people: DNA from the nucleus of one woman’s egg, the DNA from the mitochondria of the donor woman’s egg and nuclear DNA from the father’s sperm.

There is a third issue. That, as well as allowing three-parent babies and reproductive cloning, if the mitochondrial disease was caused by flaws in the nucleus, the loophole in section 3ZA(5) would also allow genetic engineering of nuclear DNA. This could happen by inserting healthy nuclear genes into a one-celled embryo, modifying the embryo and creating healthy embryos.

In other words you are selecting genes, inserting them into the nuclear DNA of an embryo, thereby designing the embryo you require. This would not only be creating a designer baby, it would also create a strong precedent for other types of designer baby in the future.

All of these three controversial procedures are banned under Clause 3ZA(2)-(4) but section 3ZA(5) and Clause 3(6) override these restrictions.

Baroness Royall, Government Chief Whip (House of Lords), stated on 3 December 2007 that the “Government remain committed to a ban on human reproductive cloning” but the Department of Health itself has accepted that the legislation contains a flaw that in theory makes it easier for the ban on reproductive cloning to be lifted.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat Science Spokesman, has said that “it would be better, for the sake of consistency and reassurance, for the Bill to do what we all thought it would do, which is totally to ban human reproductive cloning in primary legislation.”

It would be easy for the Government to redraft the Bill and commit to banning reproductive cloning.

If the Government really opposes reproductive cloning why the loophole?


BMJ (1999) 319:593 “Dolly’s other DNA came from donor egg”

Hansard, 3 Dec 2007: Column 1513-1513

Mark Henderson, Times Online, 14/06/08 (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article/4133539.ece)

Mark Henderson, Times Online, 14/06/08 (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article/4133539.ece)

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