London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's Court of Appeal on Tuesday decided to allow a couple to create a "designer baby" to aid their ailing son.
The ruling overturned a lower court verdict in favor of a pro-life reproductive watchdog group.
In a unanimous decision, three justices ruled that the parents of four-year-old Zain Hashmi will be able to go ahead with treatment "without delay."
Zain suffers from the rare blood disease thalassaemia, and doctors are seeking to create a sibling who could provide umbilical cord cells that would help him.
Embryos created using cells from Zain's parents, Raj and Shahana Hashmi, will go through a two-stage process. After being created in a laboratory, they will be screened for the genetic disease, a test known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
Embryos that are free of the disease will be examined again to see if they are a tissue match with Zain. Doctors will then attempt to implant those that are healthy into Mrs. Hashmi's womb.
The case became a landmark battle in the area of genetic science and ethics after Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) initially approved the treatment in February 2002.
The HFEA argued in a hearing earlier this month that the dilemma faced by the Hashmis is an exceptional case, while the group bringing the suit, Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), said the decision to allow the procedure would lead down a slippery slope to further genetic manipulation of embryos.
Pro-life activists also object to the procedure because it necessarily involves the destruction of embryos.
'Delighted' with Decision
The embryology authority welcomed the decision Tuesday.
"The HFEA has made a considered and correct judgement, and we are pleased that the Court of Appeal has upheld our decision," said Suzi Leather, the authority's chairwoman.
"Clearly, clinicians cannot always prevent disease, but if they are able to and also save the life of a sibling, then this is a legitimate use of these new techniques," she said.
The doctor who will perform the procedure said he was "delighted" with the outcome of the case.
"I am relieved that this judgement, once and for all, supports the HFEA as the proper regulatory body for licensing these technologies," said Dr. Simon Fishel.
"From the public's point of view, they should have no fear because cases such as the Hashmis and the procedures involved will remain highly regulated by the HFEA," he said. "Strict conditions will apply to all couples seeking this treatment on a case-by-case basis."
Difficult Focus on Issues
But CORE's Josephine Quintavalle accused the authority of using the emotional case of the Hashmis to obscure the more general ethical and legal issues that arose in the case.
"We didn't take the Hashmis to court," Quintavalle said. "It has been very difficult to keep the focus on the actual issues debated in court.
"From the outset, this legal debate was conducted less by the courts and more by the media, who were for the most part totally disinterested in the legal arguments and implications, or the ethical issues involved," she said.
CORE has been a consistent critic of the authority, an appointed body created to oversee Britain's in-vitro fertilization industry. The watchdog group argues that the HFEA is undemocratic and fails to properly take ethical considerations into account in its decisions, allegations that the authority denies.
"One has to say that the HFEA cannot be trusted with decisions of this nature," Quintavalle said. "We advise other countries looking for guidance not to clone the HFEA - it's a monster."
The group is considering an appeal to Britain's highest court.
A spokeswoman for the U.K. Thalassaemia Society said that while the group broadly welcomed the decision, objections had been raised to the portrayal of thalassaemia as a fatal disease.
"We're concerned that thalassaemia has been presented as a terminal disease," said spokeswoman Elaine Miller. "In reality, it's no more terminal than diabetes."
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