LONDON — Britain announced plans Thursday to ban human reproductive cloning in an unprecedented bid to ease public concerns over new genetic technologies.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn said he wanted to lay to rest the "twin specters" of human cloning and the emergence of a "genetic underclass" by introducing legislation barring all forms of human reproductive cloning.
Health officials said Britain was the first country in the world to propose such laws, which came in reaction to public perceptions that reproductive cloning may be akin to the creation of Frankenstein's monster.
Several top scientists welcomed the news, but pro-life groups dismissed it as "pure political spin" aimed at pleasing voters ahead of an expected general election on June 7.
Reproductive cloning is currently banned by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, but its policy could be overturned at any time and a license issued.
"We've got to not just ban this by license. We've got to ban it by law," Milburn said.
He also confirmed that the government would introduce a moratorium on the use of genetic tests by insurance firms should the Human Genetics Commission recommend it.
In a speech to scientists and doctors in the northern English town of Newcastle, he said that despite a need for strict boundaries protected by law, Britain should aim to become a world leader in the genetic revolution in health care.
He outlined the potential benefits of genetic research in helping to diagnose patients early and increase the use of preventive medicine.
"The genetics revolution has already begun. It is not going to go away," Milburn said.
Scientists concerned at the risks involved in human reproductive cloning welcomed the ban.
"I've heard the suggestion that it might be used to replace a precious child lost in a road accident, which rather fills me with horror," said Professor Richard Gardner, chair of the Royal Society working group on stem cell and therapeutic cloning.
"Clearly there tends to be an intestinal rather than a cerebral reaction against it. Nevertheless, I have not yet heard a compelling case for its adoption," he told Reuters.
"My direct concern would be the low efficiency in animal studies and the very high rate of abnormal development."
Gardner said there were also serious ethical questions raised by the development of human cloning.
"It introduces an entirely novel situation where one individual is, in effect, precisely imposing his or her genetic constitution on another."
Pro-life groups dismissed Milburn's announcement, saying that the limited cloning of human embryos which is already allowed under British law was tantamount to human cloning.
Legislation to carry out so-called "therapeutic cloning," which relies on embryonic stem cells, was passed in January.
LIFE, a leading pro-life charity, says that "therapeutic cloning" effectively creates human beings and then kills them.
"Far from becoming the first country to ban human cloning, we have become the first to legalize it for the purposes of destructive research procedures," the group said.