Just because the idea of cloning provokes outrage doesn't mean it should be banned

We like our Christmas miracles simple. First along was Zoe McDougall, born weighing 15 ounces and now home from hospital. Second in line was the recommendation that research into human "spare part" cloning should be legal. No prizes for guessing which medical marvel met with greater approval.

The report by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) was promptly criticised by the Jeremiah of cloning, Dr Patrick Dixon, who decried it as "a Christmas present for cloners around the world".

By chance, I bumped into Dixon on the day the document was released. He was dancing, Rumpelstiltskin-style, round his briefcase in the lobby of Television Centre, intoning into a mobile phone the catalogue of newspapers eager to hear his wisdom: "Mail, Express, Telegraph, Times, Guardian . . ."

I introduced myself. Dixon was most polite. Within two minutes, he had: 1) given me his business card and proposed that I interview him; 2) elicited my phone number so that he could call to fix a time; 3) delivered a mini-symposium on how the moment was nigh when a platoon of Identikit Dr Dixons might roam the corridors of the BBC.

Omitting to suggest that such a cloning exercise might be no bad thing, given the pace of his schedule, I went home. A message was waiting on my answer machine from Dixon's PR, saying that his latest book was on its way to me. One can only admire such slick marketing, particularly given the efforts of the HGAC.

Its press release was headed, uncompromisingly: "Consultation Rejects Human Reproductive Cloning". This translated itself into a Telegraph splash headline reading: "Cloning of Embryos Approved". And off we went. Eight calves had been replicated in Japan. Human cloning is "months away" (in reality, nearer two years). The Dixon nightmare loomed.

Except that the HGAC press release was specific. It recommended a "total ban" on reproductive human cloning, while allowing the use of very young embryos for research into tissue cloning. Such experiments, holding promise for treating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, would be closely regulated and reviewed in five years.

It is irrefutable that a human clone will soon be produced, somewhere in the world. It is arguable that expertise developed in Britain might hasten that day. Since there is little we can do on either front, the correct response is to direct home-grown research to proper and humane ends.

The merits of this sensible course were overshadowed by a blanket tirade against embryologists; new Frankensteins and would-be eugenicists careless of the example of guilt-wracked atom bomb scientists. Such criticism blatantly ignores the fact that screening for genetically transmitted diseases is for the enhancement of the human condition, not the compulsory purification of the race. As for the nuclear connection, I have never understood why the fathers of the Manhattan project were so thunderstruck to realise that weapons of mass and lingering destruction might turn out to have some downside.

But some embryologists do follow the Oppenheimer mantra that "when you see something technically sweet, you do it". Some, in the lucrative infertility industry, play God while thinking Mammon. Some attempt to buck what the regulators decree, and sometimes they are right. If Steptoe and Edwards had bowed to the HFEA's wishes, in vitro fertilisation would have been delayed by years.

No one doubts that ethics and science dance an uneasy two-step or that the cloning issue will continue to provoke debate and outrage. That does not constitute a good reason for a full-scale ban on a procedure offering benefit to the gravely ill. Besides, a veto would be no more successful than trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.

It is, however, advisable, whenever a mountainous ethical debate presents itself, also to study the molehills. In a separate report this week, the HFEA refused to ban the controversial practice of paid egg-sharing, on the grounds that donor inducement was not cash, but free or subsidised fertility treatment.

The decision was a reminder that, many years after the world's first test-tube baby was conceived under the NHS in Oldham, most infertile women get no help unless they pay. As the cloning scaremongers stress, Britain leads the way in reproductive medical research. The scandal, for the ordinary citizen, is not how greatly the onward rush of science alters lives. It is how little.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?