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World: Race Begins To Clone A Human Being

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Amid conflicting opinions and emotions, the race is on to clone a human being. A group of scientists says it plans to go ahead with human cloning as soon as possible, despite the moral outcry it will cause, and despite serious doubts within the scientific community about the viability of the procedure. Moves are underway to ban cloning worldwide, but that will take time. The procedure already is banned in much of Western and Eastern Europe. However, the situation relating to the cloning of embryos not destined for birth but instead for use in medical research is less clear. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 14 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It appears almost certain that the first attempted cloning of a human being will take place in the next few months. International scientists told a Washington press conference last week that they plan to start human reproductive cloning, possibly within the next 60 days.

One of the scientists, Italy's Severino Antinori, said he plans to implant more than 200 women volunteers with cloned embryos by the end of this year.

If he does so, he will have to conduct the experiments outside Italy, which like much of Western and Eastern Europe bans human cloning. His plans would also violate a Council of Europe convention on the subject, which became valid just a few months ago (March).

However, many countries do not have any restrictions in place, and finding a site for the experiments should not be difficult. With this in mind, Germany and France are leading an initiative at the United Nations to develop a legally binding international convention banning human birth cloning. But that will take time, at least two years, and France has appealed to the world community to close that gap by enacting domestic legislation.

Many scientists are still skeptical that cloning techniques are well enough developed to allow a reasonable chance of success with humans. The first successful animal cloning came in 1997, when Dolly the sheep was born in Scotland. But the wastage of embryos in such experiments is very high. One of the Dolly team scientists, Ian Wilmut, has estimated that more than 9,000 embryos have been used in animal experiments for implanting into surrogate mothers, producing fewer than 300 live offspring. And many of those survivors had genetic abnormalities.

Given such statistics, ethical concerns are bound to arise. Theologians see the use of cloning techniques as an attack against the respect for human life. Professor Volker Eid of Bamberg University in Germany puts it this way:

"The floodgates are open, and the public is left to fantasize over the supposed great [scientific] possibilities, although they are not really informed on what is achievable, or what evil can result from irresponsible playing with human life. After all, one can always employ as an argument the possibility of great successes in healing illnesses, but the real results are [often] not as promised. One of course uses this as an argument to obtain permission to continue [research]."

If the opposition to human birth cloning is clear and appears widespread, the related question of stem-cell research is more complicated. Stem cells are master cells that can transform themselves into other cell types and are seen as a possible cure for neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as others. But the best stem cells are taken from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

As expected, controversy over this technique has developed between those who see the moral issues as paramount, and those who view advances in scientific knowledge as more important. In a compromise position, U.S. President George W. Bush has just decided that U.S. federal funds can only be used in stem-cell research where a limited number of cell lines are drawn from embryos that have already been destroyed.

Some scientists have criticized these limitations, and they point to countries like Britain, where a technique called therapeutic cloning is now allowed. That's the creation of new embryos specifically as a source for stem cells, rather than as babies. Many see this liberal approach as giving Britain an advantage in the race to develop commercial cures.

As Robert Terry, senior policy adviser to the London-based Wellcome Trust medical charity, puts it:

"The [recent] change in the [British] law allows for science to fully explore the full potential; the difference in the United States is that they have been limited to 60 existing cell lines, and that is putting a sort of freeze on development, and having to work with what is already there. But the situation in Britain allows for opening up the whole area and allowing a full exploration, because most people think that there will need to be stem cells developed from lots of different sources."

Britain's position is more pro-research so far than that of its European Union fellow member Germany. Andrea Boehnler, a spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry in Berlin, tells RFE/RL that a policy on what will be permitted in stem cell research is still being formulated. She said an official scientific panel that advises the government on ethical questions is now at work on the issue:

"It's now under consideration, the [issue of] stem-cell therapy. And the difference between the embryo-related cells and the adult [cells] is now under discussion. At the moment, the ethics commission is preparing a draft position, and the [German ] government has meanwhile called on scientists to refrain from working in this [stem-cell] area."

British experts defend their country's liberal policies on stem-cell research, noting that there is close regulation of both the private and public sectors, and a strict licensing system. Robin Lovell-Badge, the head of development genetics at the British National Institute for Medical Research, tells RFE/RL:

"The [British] Medical Research Council is obviously willing to support research in this area, so they think this is an important area for them to be involved in. So on that basis, is it very clear that people here on the whole agree with that research. It was approved by government, with significant majorities in both houses of parliament, and that is therefore a mandate from government for the research to be done. And also there is now an expectation [on the part of sick people] that the research will be actually done."

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