MPs back artificial sperm for childless

MPs are planning a change in the law to allow babies to be conceived from artificial sperm, a move described by opponents as playing God with human DNA. ( Guardian )

A furious debate is building ahead of a vote in the Commons on the government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, which is designed to overhaul legislation covering fertility treatment and embryo research. The bill allows the use of artificial eggs and sperm in experiments, but bans their use to create a human pregnancy, a move opposed by a cross-party group of MPs led by the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, who will table an amendment.

'There is no good explanation for not allowing this option for people who have survived cancer and cannot have children,' Harris told The Observer. 'This is a good bill, but the government needs to recognise that there are a few improvements still needed - such as allowing the use of stem cell-derived gametes [male or female germ cells that produce an embryo when they fuse] - before we can say that the UK has rational and progressive regulation.'

'Artificial' sperm has been created in experiments on mice. DNA was extracted from a mouse and used to make a line of stem cells. These were then allowed to differentiate into the specialist cells that make sperm.

But Josephine Quintavalle of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics said it could lead to 'the ultimate incest' of an individual trying to create both sperm and eggs from their own tissue, making them both mother and father of a child. It could also lead to men being redundant in the conception process.

Dawn Primarolo, the public health minister, confirmed last night she was considering pleas from MPs and scientists to relax the ban. There was a 'powerful argument' that the new technique could help solve donor shortages, she said, but she was sympathetic to arguments that a decision should not be rushed.

So far a team from Newcastle University has managed to grow human sperm from stem cells - immature building blocks containing all the necessary genetic information to develop into specific human tissues - taken from bone marrow. It has also created live births in mice using artificial mouse sperm - although the baby mice died after five months. Experts believe it could be five to 10 years before scientists could attempt a human pregnancy.

Dr Allan Pacey, chairman of the British Fertility Society, insisted, however, that the technique did not raise new ethical questions and that a ban was unnecessary. 'The government didn't really explain why they were so keen to ban it,' he said. 'I think if you talk to people - take the example of a cancer victim who hasn't got any sperm or eggs because they have had chemotherapy - if you get to the step where we could make it for them, most people will say they can see the benefits.'

However Quintavalle said ministers were right to move cautiously and it was 'quite ridiculous' to rely on the potential of a technique still in its infancy. 'If you turn the focus around from infertile adults and think about what you are creating, you always get the perspective you should adopt,' she said. 'I think we are becoming extremely selfish in our attitude to the children we produce.'

Harris's amendment would add a so-called regulation-making power to the bill - a device ensuring that if the new technique were proven safe for humans, MPs could nod through a decision allowing it to be used in IVF without a full parliamentary debate and vote.

It would also stipulate that the gametes should come from two halves of a couple, ensuring that in the UK at least the technique could not be used for a single parent to become both mother and father to the same child.

The approach is expected to be backed by the British Medical Association, the Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Primarolo said she was still consulting on the issue, but added: 'The research can be done, and the issue is whether we legislate to say if it were successful it could proceed. There are some who are saying - and I think these are strong arguments - that it does raise some profound ethical questions.'

Ministers are conscious that the legislation is already controversial, with anti-abortion MPs demanding a free vote on issues such as stem-cell therapy research. Primarolo indicated yesterday that there would be no free vote, arguing that the bill was government business and that stem-cell therapies offered hope of cures for serious diseases.

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