Will Britain legalize human cloning? The Daily Telegraph reports today that Dr. Ian Wilmut, the lead researcher in the cloning of “Dolly,” the first cloned mammal, is now behind the effort — even as he had steadfastly opposed such efforts in the past:

A proposal to create babies that are both cloned and genetically altered to prevent serious hereditary disease is outlined today by the leader of the team that created Dolly the sheep.

Ever since news that Dolly had been cloned from an adult cell made headlines around the world, Prof Ian Wilmut has repeatedly said he is “implacably opposed” to cloning a human being.

But in his forthcoming book After Dolly, serialised today in The Daily Telegraph, he argues that, when the techniques are shown to be safe, society should consider cloning with genetic modification to prevent the birth of babies with serious diseases.

Here is the heart of his argument:

Prof Wilmut writes: “Doctors should be able to offer at-risk couples the opportunity to conceive with IVF methods, break down the resulting embryos into cells, correct any serious genetic defects in these cells then clone demonstrably healthy cells to create a new embryo that can be implanted to start a pregnancy.”

The resulting child would be the identical twin of the original embryo but would have the diseased gene corrected in every one of its cells. The original embryo would be discarded.

“I am extremely concerned about the effects on a child of being a clone of another person and I oppose it. However, an early embryo is not a person and I see the use of nuclear transfer to prevent a child’s having a dreadful disease as far less controversial.”

Note the central declaration of his argument — that “an early embryo is not a person.” Everything else follows.

The editors of the paper make a very interesting (and deeply troubling) argument of their own. After reviewing the case against human cloning, they simply dismiss efforts to ban the procedures:

What, then, should the law say? Should it allow for derogations from the general prohibition on human cloning for the specific purpose of screening for diseases? Should it override the public’s distaste for the whole notion?

Yes, it should. For, as we have argued time and again, there is a difference between disapproving of something and banning it. The fact that a new scientific process unnerves us so much is not sufficient grounds to prohibit it. Many will object to the idea of cloning human tissue, whether on grounds of religion or taste; and they will, of course, be free to shun the procedure.

But others will see it as the one sure way to bring healthy children into the world; and the rest of us have no business impeding them.

Just consider where this argument must lead — toward the labeling of any objectionable (or intrinsically immoral) technology as merely “distasteful” or opposed only on grounds of “religion” Thus, the argument goes, the fact that some might find a procedure or technology “distasteful” cannot justify its prohibition. So what can be prohibited? And on what grounds?