Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Designer Babies' Spark Debate

LONDON -- The possibility that women might soon be helped to conceive by using eggs or ovarian tissue from aborted fetuses has sparked a wide-ranging debate over ethics and the social implications of cutting-edge reproductive technology.

The issues involved are seen here as so complex that Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, a government agency that regulates fertility clinics, has issued a rare request for comment from doctors, politicians, religious figures and the public before it decides, in about six months, whether to support the licensing of such procedures.

A wide-ranging debate is necessary to "keep scientists, ethicists and the law running in harmony," Colin Campbell, chairman of the fertilization authority, told reporters.

The question of so-called "designer babies" has become front-page news throughout Britain. Two days after Christmas, it was revealed that in-vitro fertilization had allowed a 59-year-old British woman to give birth to twins. A few days later, it emerged that a black woman seeking to have a child through in-vitro techniques may soon be implanted with eggs taken from a white donor.

Now the focus has shifted to recent research at the University of Edinburgh on the possibility of using grafts of fetal ovarian tissue to allow infertile women to conceive.

A team led by Roger Gosden has successfully transplanted ovaries in mice and sheep, and believes the procedure could be carried out on humans.

Campbell said it is also likely that it will be possible to use eggs or ovaries from cadavers in such transplants. Members of the fertilization authority, who first learned of the potential new techniques more than a year ago, reacted initially with "unease, distaste and surprise," he told reporters Friday in releasing a document setting out the issues involved.

Those new treatments, if perfected, would pose stunning paradoxes. In the case of an ovarian transplant from fetal tissue, a child would be born whose biological mother was never born. In the case of transplanted tissue from a corpse, the child's mother would have died before conception.

Some commentators have called these prospects "ghoulish" and "horrendous." Stephen Hillier, an Edinburgh researcher who is also a member of the fertilization authority, told the Times of London that the idea of using fetal tissue in this way provoked "an unquantifiable yuck factor which is very disturbing."

Gosden has suspended his research pending comment by the ethics committee of the British Medical Association and a recommendation from the fertilization authority.

Ultimately, the final word will come from the government, with Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley making the decision.

Some critics have already announced their intention to fight to ban the prospective technology.

"I do not understand how the medical profession could consider producing children from a mother that never existed," said Dame Jill Knight, who heads a health committee in Parliament.