Japan gears up to debate brake on human cloning

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Japan's Council for Science and Technology, the principal science policy-making body which is chaired by the prime minister, is setting up a committee to discuss a possible legal ban on human cloning.

The move was announced last week and coincided with the signing by 19 European countries of a convention in which they agreed to introduce legislation to ban human cloning for reproductive purposes (see Nature 391, 219; 1998).

The Japanese committee will be made up of experts in ethics, medicine and the law, and plans to hold its first meeting in February. It aims to reach an agreement on its recommendations by May, in time for the G7 meeting of the leaders of the advanced industrialized countries to be held in Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, at which issues raised by human cloning are scheduled to be discussed.

Keiichi Tanigaki, director-general of Japan's Science and Technology Agency (STA), said at a meeting of the council last week that the cloning of humans is “a fundamental issue in bioethics”, and that an “open and nationwide debate” is needed in Japan before a decision is made on how it should be controlled.

But critics point out that the committee's meetings will be closed to the public, in contrast to similar meetings at ministries such as the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

The issue of human cloning “requires careful and determined consideration” says Norio Fujiki, an emeritus professor at Fukui Medical School and one of Japan's leading bioethicists. “The first step requires the involvement of people from different fields, so that extensive discussions can take place.”

Since last year's birth in Scotland of Dolly, the cloned lamb, the council has repeatedly asked Japanese researchers in the public and private sectors to hold back from carrying out research into human cloning. The STA and the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbusho) have responded by announcing plans to limit their funding and research in this area until proper guidelines have been laid down.

A protocol protecting human embryos already exists in Japan; donating eggs is illegal under ethical rules laid down by the Japanese Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. But there are loopholes. It was recently revealed that a Japanese couple had agreed to donate fertilized eggs to an American couple, and that there have been more than 100 cases of such ‘adoption’ from Japan. Although this practice is prohibited in Japan, it is legal in the United States.

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