LONDON — A consultation exercise to establish the public's views on human cloning technology was launched in the U.K. last week. And for the first time, members of the public can make their opinions known via the Internet as well as through more traditional channels.

A paper on the implications of human cloning was published by two government bodies, the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which have responsibility for advising on and regulating the field.

The paper, "Cloning issues in reproduction, science and medicine," will be revised in light of the comments made and will form the basis of advice to the government on the issues raised by cloning.

The government has indicated that while human cloning is already banned, it will consider whether the legislation needs to be tightened.

The chairman of the HGAC, Colin Campbell, said, "The announcement of Dolly the cloned sheep in February 1997 captured the imagination of many throughout the world. We have been told that this breakthrough will open both wonderful and the most terrifying possibilities, and people are understandably concerned about what the implications really are. It is important to sort out the scientific facts from the science fiction."

Campbell said there is considerable confusion because the term "cloning" is used to describe a number of different concepts. The paper draws a distinction between human reproductive cloning, where the intent is to produce identical individuals, and therapeutic cloning, in which a cloned embryo is used for research into such techniques as producing replacement skin, cartilage or bone tissue, or for cancer research.

Ruth Deech, chairman of the HFEA, said the U.K. already has one of the most stringent bans on human cloning. "Human reproductive cloning is not permitted in the U.K.," she noted. "However, there are potential benefits of research involving therapeutic cloning technology, where the end result will not involve creating genetically identical fetuses or babies."

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which came into effect in 1991, allows, under a license, research involving human embryos for up to 14 days of development. No one has yet sought a license for human cloning research, though Deech said the HFEA expects to receive applications.

The authority's policy is that it will not license any research which has reproductive cloning as its aim. But it would consider applications involving embryo splitting or nuclear replacement to produce cloned embryos for therapeutic research.

Both Campbell and Deech said human reproductive cloning remains science fiction and stressed that no relaxation on the ban on human cloning is on the agenda. However, the consultation paper asks the public if it would approve of the use of the technique to help infertile couples.

Exceptions To Cloning Ban May Be Possible

For example, the paper states, "A lesbian couple might wish to have a child. Here the cell nucleus from one woman could be inserted into an enucleated egg from the other. Another scenario might be where both individuals of a couple are infertile, or where the prospective father has non-functional sperm. In this case, cloning one member of the couple to create offspring might be envisaged."

The paper points out that Dolly was the only normal lamb born from 276 attempts. Any attempts to develop cloning technology in humans would be expensive and would require a large amount of human experimentation. "Do these considerations make experimentation in humans involving the implantation of cloned embryos ethically unacceptable?" the paper asks. "How does this case differ from the experiments that led to successful in vitro fertilization procedures?"

Welcoming the consultation, John Battle, minister for science, said, "The government welcomes this initiative. It is vital that there is open discussion of the issues raised by advances in biosciences to ensure that they are life-enhancing and understood by the public. We need to ensure that scientific and technological developments do not outstrip our moral capacities to handle them."

The closing date for responses to the paper is April 30, 1998.