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Defending life from the moment of conception

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News, 11 December 2000

11 December 2000

11 December 2000 The British government has announced plans to make the morning-after pill available throughout the UK from pharmacists without a doctor's prescription from the first of next month. Alan Milburn, the health secretary, planned to lay the necessary legislation before parliament today. The abortifacient drug would be made available to women aged 16 years or over at a price of 20 pounds, although today Dr John Chisholm of the British Medical Association said that the drug should also be made available to girls under the age of 16. He said: "We welcome the secretary of state's decision but would have liked him to go further." Pro-life groups, the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and the opposition in parliament have all condemned the government's plans. Dr Liam Fox, the Conservative party's health spokesman, said that he was "alarmed and appalled" by the news. Paul Tully, general secretary of SPUC, pointed out that the five-fold increase in use of the morning-after pill over the past 10 years had not reduced the clinical abortion rate, and warned that the decision would result in greater risk to women's health. [BBC News online, 11 December ; Catholic media office, 10 December; SPUC media release, 10 December ] Lord Winston, the British fertility expert, has patented a technique for genetically altering sperm which he hopes could be developed to eliminate certain diseases. The technique, which Professor Winston developed in collaboration with researchers in California, involves the injection of genetic material directly into the testicle which is then carried to the developing male germ cells by way of a virus. The man's germ line cells, which produce his sperm, could then be modified to alter any undesirable traits before they are passed on to his offspring. Some of the research into the technique reportedly involved the use of test-tube embryos, although this took place in the United States rather than under the UK's legal restrictions. If the government's statutory instrument to authorise human cloning research is passed in parliament next week, this type of research on human embryos for so-called therapeutic ends would become legal in the UK as well. [Zenit news agency, 10 December; SPUC, London] The US Food and Drug Administration has approved the Mirena intra-uterine device (IUD) for use in America. The device, which releases levonorgestrel directly into the womb, can remain in a woman's body for five years. It has been available in certain European countries for 10 years and has been used by about two million women. [Medical Design online, 8 December]. Like other IUDs, Mirena is thought to work by preventing embryos from implanting in the lining of the womb. It is therefore an abortifacient. [See related story in the news digest for 20 November ] The Australian federal parliament passed legislation last week which banned human cloning and the creation of hybrid embryos containing human DNA. However, amendments tabled by Senator Brian Harradine which would have extended the ban on research to human embryos were rejected. Senator Harradine cited a statement on human cloning by the Australian Health Ethics Committee and commented: "If we do not say what is meant by a whole human being, then we risk watering down the intent of that statement." [The Australian, 6 December ] It is unclear whether the new legislation outlaws all human cloning, or only reproductive cloning. Researchers in the UK have discovered a technique which they believe will enable them accurately to predict weeks in advance when a pregnant woman will go into labour. The technique, which involves measuring electrical impulses in the muscles of the womb, was developed by researchers at Leeds University. It is hoped that it will allow doctors to reduce the number of premature births. [BBC News online, 10 December ]

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