LONDON, August 18. A mixture of horror and excitement greeted the British government's decision this week to allow stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. For most scientists, the risk–benefit balance is clearly weighted in favour of such research, and the decision heralds a new era of therapeutic possibilities. But for many people in Britain it smacks of eugenics and meddling with the sanctity of life. So what is all the fuss about?

On Wednesday Tony Blair's government endorsed the conclusions of an expert committee led by Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, that embryonic stem cells — primordial cells that can differentiate into any mature cell type given the right conditions — have "enormous potential" to create new forms of treatment for currently incurable diseases. At present, research on human embryos up to 14 days old is permitted for a handful of specific purposes related to infertility. Animal studies, mainly...

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