Simon Caldwell argues that the appointment of members with conflicts of interest points to a hidden agenda
HOW MANY conflicts of interests should our policy makers — the shapers of our futures — be allowed to have before they must declare them to the public?
The furore generated over Science Minister Lord Sainsbury's direct financial interests in genetically modified foods (he owns companies Innotech and Diatech and controls a charitable trust which funds organisations with a vested interest in such products) might suggest that ordinary people prefer there to be none.
But, of course, that is not always the case — seldom so in the area of bioethics and genetics, and especially so in the controversial field of cloning.
A working party was set up by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) and the Human Fertilisaton and Embryology Authority (HFEA) on behalf of the Government to assess laws currently surrounding this newest of technological revolutions and to test public opinion.
It concluded that most people found "reproductive" cloning instinctively repulsive, but that many could see benefits in "therapeutic" cloning, where a brainless copy of a person is made for spare parts.
The whole object of the exercise was to decide whether or not to permit the cloning of humans and the Government was due to issue its response in the New Year, although it has since deferred publication until April. Fine at first glance. However, the working party comprised Dr George Poste, Dr Anne McLaren, Professor Christine Gosden and the Reverend Dr John Polkinghome — all scientists handpicked for a task which, under scrutiny, appears to place central bioethical considerations second to commercial ones.
Of this gang of four, Dr Poste is the most interesting, and, indeed, the most interested.
He is chief science and technology officer of pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, of which he is also an executive director, and is an internationally-renowned expert on the healthcare marketplace.
He does quite nicely out of it too. Dr Poste has a percentage financial interest in the biotechnological firm of which he is an executive director.
His share options in the company, many of which he received as bonuses, are valued at more than £18 million and on December 2 last year he made £4 million in one day by exercising some of those options. That's on top of a salary of more than £800,000.
Since SmithKline Beecham is just one company likely to profit from advances in human cloning, the membership of Dr Poste in the group must surely represent a serious conflict of interest. In fact, just how interested can you get? Yet there was no financial interest declared.
Then, there is Dr McLaren, the principal research asso ciate of the Wellcome/Cancer Research Campaign Institute, a charitable body which claims few connections to the drugs company, Glaxo Wellcome plc.
In fact, the trust is the biggest shareholder in Glaxo, owning more than five per cent. This holding translates to a figure of about £3.5 billion. The Wellcome Institute gets an income of some £60 million a year in dividends from Glaxo Wellcome. Again, there was no financial interest declared.
The others, Dr Polkinghome and Professor Gosden, seem certainly to be excited by the prospect of human cloning, if their public statements are anything to go by, which incidentally also seem to reveal a shared view that human beings, albeit in the earliest stages of their existence, may be used as means to other ends.
Professor Gosden, who also sits on the HFEA, and who experimented on human embryos extensively during the 1980s, has described preborn clones as "nothing more than life-saving tissue generators" in one of a few alarming public statements in defence of the process.
Dr Polkinghorne, a physician and a member of the Church of England's General Synod, meanwhile, has attempted to excuse their destruction by pointing to "serious benefits" that may be gained, and by asking people to "help us to understand what these benefits might be".
Such benefits could include the treating of damaged tissues and organs, the relieving of such diseases as of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, the delaying of the ageing processes, as well as an open door to new research.
Then there is the prospect of clones for children for infertile couples and homosexuals.
In a such a climate of opportunity, the various interested powers may not wish to pull back from the brink of the Brave New World, and they may not desire that anyone should tell them to do so either.
But perhaps that was the intention all along. After all, there is much at stake; so much, perhaps, that the overriding moral concern — the status and treatment of unborn human beings — has been obscured. Perhaps that was deliberate too. As Lord Alton of Liverpool points out, not one member of the party upholds the sanctity of life from conception.
The heart of the matter is not that there has not been enough debate — it is rather that there has been no real debate.
No amount of meaningless, manipulated consultations or dangerously loaded committees, which together feign an appearance of democracy, can change that fact.
Had the members of the working party been likely to oppose cloning, they might not have been picked in the first place. As much as it is a profound assumption, it is a reasonable one too because this has happened before; most notably when the humanist philosopher, Baroness Warnock, vetoed an appointment to the HFEA because the person was a Catholic.
"I just knew I couldn't work with him," explained Baroness Warnock to a newspaper reporter. "We went right up to the day before publication with the civil servants saying, 'but there's nobody else in the world'."
The row over GM foods reveals that there is deep concern in the public mind about the influence of vested commercial interests on the exercise of good government, yet the media remains selective in what it exposes and what it helps to conceal.
Public opinion is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the cloning revolution and some suggest it is the reason why the publication of the Government's responses to the report of the working party has been put back.
Lord Alton, who has tabled questions in the Lords about the interests of the working party, believes New Labour may be nervous about the contents of its response and the reaction they might generate among a public already disquieted by the GM food controversy.
He said: "Greater issues are at stake here. The Government said its response to the report would be published in the New Year. I hope the delay means it is having second thoughts and not just waiting for the row over GM foods to blow over.
'There has been no debate in either House of Parliament and before any goverment response is made we out to hear what public representatives believe."
He adds: "We are so obsessed with European conspiracies and marginal issues that we frequently allow the most crucial questions of the day to be decided by small elites of the great and the good, who populate august committees that are wholly unaccountable and totally undemocratic."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry said the delay had arisen simply because consultations were still continuing and because a framework had yet to be established. "It is unlikely that we'd have a government response until both of those things have been completed," she said.
But Peter Garrett, director of anti-cloning group MATCH, suspects something a little more sinister — and shocking — particularly since last week the British Medical Association dismissed the arguments against human cloning.
He claims the weight of public opinion would ordinarily mean that those with any fiscal interests such processes would have to settle for the time being with therapeutic cloning (described as a race), and tolerate a moratorium on reproductive cloning.
The latter would come only after a complicit media had whittled away at the sensitiv ities of the bulk of the electorate in the same way that powerful elements within it have sought, and continue to seek, to change its views on issues such as euthanasia, abortion and the meaning of marriage.
Already, utilitarian ethicist Dr John Harris, a man who advocates mandatory organ donation after death, has been allowed on television and in the national press to brand the arguments against cloning as "sheer prejudice".
"It could be," said Mr Garrett, "that the Government has decided against a twostage move towards human cloning and may try to push the debate even faster, as the BMA is doing. There are vested interests here — the infertility lobby has been pushing for this kind of thing."
He said arguments against cloning were, in fact, overwhelming not least because of the increased risk of malformity in children, and because it would increase the amount of embryos destroyed in experiments, the of number of which already stands at about 100,000 a year.
"Human cloning will result in large numbers of surrogate mothers," added Mr Garrett. "The miscarriage, deliberate abortion (including late term), and peri-natal mortality rate will be astronomically high.
"Human cloning will technologically manufacture `copies' of adults and children without any thought going into what the psychological outcome will be for either the 'copies' or the 'originals'. The forced expectations of the 'originals' will shadow the life chances of the 'copies'. Nobody has begun to ask what the impact will be — real debate is being prevented.
"It becomes clear that the scientific community is not going to stop because of any ethical or moral obligation. Furthermore, they have no intention of listening to the voice of the people. The general public has gone from a state of ignorance to a state of being ignored."
What is so obviously needed are honesty, transparency, fairness, accountability and, of course, democracy. If the GM food scare suggests anything, it is that most people would agree that such issues are too important to be left in the hands of scientists who work for firms which seek big profits in lucrative new markets.
Nor is it unreasonable to demand that advances in technology do not come at the expense of human life. And it would be more representative of quangos and government bodies to include in their number some of the great many people who value it.
The British Medical Journal last month reported a technique to grow human tissue from adult stem cells which have the inherent ability to redefine themselves. A method has also been devised to grow tissue from one cell harmlessly removed from a zygote just eight cells big, which can then be replaced in its mother's body.
So it is emerging that the new revolution could go ahead without loss of life. Science is moving at such a fast rate the killing of the unborn could be avoided if so desired. In other words, to reap the benefits of therapeutic cloning, it is not necessary to destroy a single embryo.
The problem is, as Cardinal Basil Hume hinted in a statement on human cloning before Christmas, that there are a few too many people who are being clever without being wise. And it is those very same people who are not letting anyone else have a say.
The Movement Against the Cloning of Humans (MATCH) can be contacted on 0151 330 0320