In Britain, the July report of the Warnock committee on the ethics of such matters as test-tube baby research has provoked considerable debate.
The government-appointed committee, chaired by Dame Mary Warnock, recommends a ban on surrogate-motherhood agencies, both profit and non-profit making; a 14-day limit on experiments on human embryos; legitimization of children born by artificial insemination by donor; the freezing of human eggs and sperm for up to five years; the freezing of embryos for up to 10 years; and the formation of a licensing body to administer and to enforce the proposed laws.
The recommendation to ban commercial surrogate-motherhood agencies was because “it is inconsistent with human dignity that a woman should use her uterus for financial profit and treat it as an incubator for someone else’s child.” While the committee recommends criminal prosecution for “professionals and others who knowingly assist in the establishment of a surrogate pregnancy,” it does not recommend prosecution in private surrogacy arrangements. It recommends all surrogacy agreements be made illegal (and therefore unenforceable: in other words, there would be no obligation that a surrogate mother hand over the new-born child should she decide to keep it.)
Licensing child agencies
Two members of the 16-member committee dissented from this ban in a minority report. They concurred on the ban on commercial agencies, but they stated that it “would be a mistake to close the door completely on surrogacy being offered as a treatment of childlessness.” Instead, they suggested the licensing of non-profit-making agencies.
There was wide disagreement amongst committee members over the recommendation to allow experiments on human embryos of up to 14-days gestation. Two minority reports were submitted on this matter, and so this recommendation was supported by only nine of the 16 members.
Three of the committee members stated, “It is in our view wrong to create something with the potential for becoming a human person and deliberately to destroy it. Neither the relief of infertility nor the advance of knowledge justifies their deliberate destruction. In our view, experiments on spare embryos are wrong.”
A second minority report, signed by four members opposed experiments on embryos deliberately created for that purpose. This implies that research on “spare” embryos made originally for test-tube fertilization procedures is acceptable.
Experiments on humans
The majority report states that many advances in the treatment of infertility could not have occurred if research on human embryos had not been allowed. Research would be permitted on embryos up to 14 days’ gestation, and would be permitted only under license; the unauthorized use of a human embryo would a criminal offence. Routine testing of drugs on embryos would not be allowed “because this would require the manufacture of large numbers of embryos,” the committee report said. However, “there may be very particular circumstances where the testing of such substances on a small scale may be justified,” it added.
Commenting on the report, Mrs. Nuala Scarisbrick, administrator of Life, stated in The Daily Telegraph that the 14-day limit is arbitrary and has no foundation in logic. “Whatever benefits may be claimed for research on human embryos, no research, however wonderful, can justify experimentation on living human beings,” she said. “It cannot be right to have two breeds of human beings: one fertilised to live and the other bred solely for the purpose of scientific research.”
Dr. Margaret White, a general practitioner and a member of the General Medical Council, pointed out that there would be pressure to extend the 14-day limit, that attempts would be made to develop an artificial womb, and that there would be experiments in inter-species fertilization. Dr. White said there should be a ban on all experiments on human embryos.
At present, children born as a result of Artificial Insemination by Donor (AID) are considered illegitimate under the law, as the father of the child is not the mother’s husband. The committee recommends that couples be allowed to register the husband as the father on the birth certificate, adding “by donation” if they wish. It also recommends that AID children have legal access, at the age of 18, to basic information about the donor such as ethnic original and genetic health. But, they feel, the anonymity of the donor should be preserved; no donor should be allowed to father more than 10 children, and he should not be paid.
On freezing eggs and sperm, the committee says “It seems to us the only motive for storage would be to make possible the birth of a child at a subsequent date. For example, a man might wish to store semen before undergoing surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy that is likely to make him sterile.” It recommends an “automatic five-yearly review of such deposits.” The use by a widow of her dead husband’s semen for artificial insemination is not to be permitted and “should be actively discouraged.”
A human embryo should not be frozen for more than 10 years “after which the right to use or dispose of it should pass to the storage authority.” If the parents die, the “right to use or dispose of their frozen embryos should also pass to the authority which is storing it.”
The committee’s recommendations have to receive parliamentary approval before they pass into law. The most controversial aspect of the report, the approval of experiments on human embryos, will receive considerable opposition from MPs.
Sir Bernard Braine, conservative MP for Castle Point, Essex, is promoting a Bill to outlaw any experiments on human embryos. “It cost 93,000 pounds to produce this whitewash [the Warnock report], and there are those of us in Parliament who are determined that the public will be made aware of what is envisaged,” he said. “The experiments have got to be brought under control.”
He said the committee completely ignored evidence from highly reputable geneticists that cures for genetic disease could be found without the need for embryo experiments.
Sir Bernard estimated at least 100 MPs were committed to opposition to experiments on human embryos and an additional 100 were expected to support a Bill banning such experiments.