by BEEZY MARSH and JAMES CHAPMAN, Daily Mail
Scientists are ready to plunder the ovaries of aborted babies for eggs to use in IVF treatment. Experiments have taken the process almost to completion, it emerged yesterday.
They raise the nightmare prospect of a child whose biological mother has never been born. The news, from a scientific conference in Madrid, was greeted with widespread revulsion at how far science is testing ethical frontiers.
Experts warned of appalling emotional and biological problems.
But fertility doctors say the development could ease a worldwide shortage of donated eggs for women who cannot produce their own.
Only last week a British clinic offered cut-price IVF treatment to women who agreed to donate eggs.
Scientists have known for some time that female foetuses develop ovaries after as little as 16 weeks in the womb.
Now researchers from Israel and the Netherlands have kept ovarian tissue from aborted foetuses alive in the laboratory for several weeks.
They stopped the experiment at the point where they believed eggs were about to be produced. Chief researcher Dr Tal Biron-Shental said it was 'theoretically possible' that with extra hormone treatment they could have produced mature eggs suitable for IVF use.
He claimed it would be ethically 'almost the same' as existing techniques.
Details of the major research programme were unveiled at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Madrid.
The process would be illegal in Britain, but experts said there is no way this country can escape the ethical questions. There have been several recent cases of British couples having fertility treatment abroad, and the fact that Dutch and Israeli experts are working together shows how the science has been globalised.
The development adds yet more serious concern about the ethics of modern reproductive medicine.
Only last month the Daily Mail revealed how a couple had given birth to an IVF baby genetically screened to be a perfect tissue match for his sick brother - and possibly provide him with a cure.
Dr Tom Shakespeare, director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute at Newcastle University, said he was 'deeply uneasy' about the idea of using aborted foetuses as a source of eggs.
'My personal view is that it is wrong,' he said. 'Partly because it would cause widespread revulsion and partly because you would have somebody born who is the child of someone who never lived.
'We need to consider the welfare of the child and the impact of finding out that your mother was aborted.'
Nuala Scarisbrick, of the anti-abortion pressure group LIFE, branded the experiments 'macabre'.
She said: 'It is sickening, even by the low standards of reproductive technology. Who would want to know that their mother was an
foetus? To allow children-to grow up to find out they had been manufactured this way would be grotesque.
'They may suffer enormous psychological damage.'
Dr Francoise Shenfield, specialist in medical ethics and infertility at University College, London, said she was 'very troubled' by the new technique. 'Society is not ready for this,' she said.
Experts also pointed to the possibility of passing on defects in eggs taken from foetuses aborted for genetic malformations. They said that by the time a girl reaches puberty her egg reserves have fallen naturally from around seven million to 250,000, possibly because nature has weeded out 'faulty' eggs.
But the scientists developing the new technique insisted that the worldwide shortage of donor eggs made it ethically justifiable.
In some areas the number of women seeking eggs is five times the number of donors, and the wait for treatment can be more than two years. For many couples such a wait massively reduces the chance of success.
As well as ovaries, unborn babies have a lifetime supply of tiny sacs called follicles, inside which eggs mature once puberty is reached. By 24 weeks gestation, a foetus will have seven million-such follicles - a rich potential-source of human eggs.
The shocking new research was carried out by experts at the Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, in collaboration with Utrecht University. It involved tissue from seven babies aborted at between 22 and 33 weeks.
Slices of their ovarian tissue were grown in a culture of chemicals and hormones. Over four weeks, the follicles matured to the stage just before an egg appears.
Dr Biron-Shental said: 'The goal is still theoretical but once the follicles are developing we expect the eggs to age if we expose them to other chemicals.
'There are a lot of ethical questions, but we use donated sperm and donated eggs already - it's ethically almost the same. I'm fully aware of the controversy - but probably, in some place, it will be ethically acceptable.'
Six of the babies were aborted after disabilities and defects were discovered, but the Israeli team insisted the follicles had shown no signs of abnormality.
UK scientists are allowed to use foetal material for research but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which governs fertility clinics, has outlawed the use of eggs from aborted foetuses.
A spokesman said yesterday the issue raised 'difficult social, medical, scientific and legal questions'.
He added: 'We decided it would be difficult for any child to come to terms with being created using aborted foetal material.'