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World: Human Cloning Stirs Huge Debate

  • Frank Csongos

Should human beings be created by cloning? What are the risks? What about ethical and religious questions surrounding this highly controversial and much debated idea? In Washington, RFE/RL correspondent Frank T. Csongos takes a look at the issues involved following an announcement by a group of scientists of plans to create the first cloned human being.

Washington, 9 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Man may be a step closer to an age-old dream of creating an image of himself. But critics say the dream may actually turn out to be a nightmare.

The controversy, which gained worldwide attention this week, is about cloning -- the taking of genetic material from an adult's cell and placing it into a woman's egg. The end result would be a baby with the identical genetic makeup of the cell's donor. On 7 August, three scientists announced at a conference in Washington that they plan to proceed with separate efforts to create the first cloned human being.

Brigitte Boisselier, a chemist who directs a company in the Bahamas, told a symposium convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, she agrees with her two colleagues that it is time to try pioneering the procedure. She said, "I too believe that we have enough information today to proceed into the human cloning."

Critics of human cloning denounce the procedure as unethical and unwise. Some say it is outright monstrous.

Upon hearing the announcement in Washington, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal office for the Holy See, told reporters in Rome that cloning of humans is a "Nazi madness."

Many scientists who spoke at the conference said that cloning people was unsafe.

In 1997, Scottish scientists succeeded in cloning a sheep called Dolly. In the years since, scientists have succeeded in cloning five species of mammals: sheep, goats, pigs, mice, and cows. Ian Wilmut, who as director of the Roslin Institute in Scotland led the effort to clone Dolly, said a high proportion of the cloned animals died soon after birth and many survivors were plagued with genetic problems.

Wilmut said scientists should expect a similar outcome if they attempt to produce a cloned human.

The risks, however, did not appear to deter the proponents of human cloning. Again, chemist Boisselier.

"The whole debate has been in comparison between animal cloning and human cloning and to answer those [skeptics] there will be a lot of research to do, to show whether they are right or not. But the only way to do it is to produce the implant and get human embryo, cloned human embryo, implanted."

Panayiotis Michael Zavos, who runs laboratories in the U.S. state of Kentucky, conceded there were difficulties to overcome. But Zavos said he is determined to overcome the problems and proceed as a means of allowing infertile couples to have children. He said:

"We are going to begin human reproductive cloning as early as probably 30 to 60 days from now. There are not going to be any consequences. We think that we can hit as high as IVF (In Vitro Fertilization -- test tube conception) success (rate), which is about 30 percent in the U.S. right now."

Alan Colman, director of a biotechnical company that collaborated in the creation of Dolly the sheep, said he believes that those who want to go ahead with cloning of humans now will fail. He said one of the problems is that most of these experiments will be done in private and that the scientific community will not hear about the failures.

Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist and animal cloning pioneer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also expressed skepticism about human cloning.

"We just do not know all the ins and outs -- I think the extent of the problem which we have, and at this time, to say we are looking at three different genes and then we conclude that the embryo is normal, I think this is not good science."

The emotional issue also has reached the U.S. Congress. Shortly before adjourning for the summer last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would forbid the cloning of human embryos -- even in the search for cures to diseases. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate, but its chances of passing are unclear.

If passed by both sides of Congress, U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to sign it into law.

Bush is also wrestling with a related issue -- whether to allow taxpayer funding of research into stem cells. These cells, when taken from human embryos, can grow into any type of tissue in the body, and may hold the secret for treating diseases such as Altzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, and certain spinal cord injuries.

The congressional debate centered on the ethics and morality of cloning. The conference in Washington focused almost exclusively on science.

Eugene Pergament, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Medical School, which is located near Chicago, says even if the cloning procedure remains legal, it is just not worth it at this time.

"Cloning a whole person using assisted reproductive technology requires moving to a higher medical standard. The premise of all medical practice is to do no harm. It's true, it may never be possible to assure a positive pregnancy outcome using assisted reproductive technologies in all of the genetic testing modalities. The risk however must not outweigh the benefits."

Pergament adds that the question is not whether a normal human clone can be produced. The basic question, he says, is whether human beings would be harmed.