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Congressional Hearings On Human-Cloning Ban Begin Wednesday

Mar 27 2001

PHILADELPHIA _ With growing numbers of groups claiming efforts to clone a human, a congressional subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday on whether human cloning should be barred in the United States.

Those slated to testify range from Rudolph Jaenisch, a mouse-cloning expert at MIT's Whitehead Institute, to members of a Canadian religious group whose doctrine holds that humans are cloned versions of extraterrestrials.

Federal law does not bar privately funded researchers from attempting to create a genetic copy of a person.

Congressman Jim Greenwood, a Republican from Bucks County, said he called the hearing because of concerns about the safety and ethics of cloning.

It took 277 stillborn, miscarried or dead sheep to make the first cloned mammal _ Dolly _ in 1997, and the efficiency hasn't improved much in four years. Scientists have now cloned cows, goats, pigs and mice but say that they see problems in all these animals.

Before a human is successfully cloned, "you'll have 999 miscarriages and deliveries of very malformed children," said Greenwood, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "Do people have the right to take that risk?"

"Even if there weren't those safety questions, there are profound ethical questions," Greenwood said.

To do such experiments on humans, would be "brutal human experimentation that should lead to arrest," said ethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, who plans to testify Wednesday. He said he is concerned that laws and regulations covering medical procedures and research will not stop people from proceeding with human cloning experiments.

"The case for a moratorium is irrefutable," he said.

At the same time, Caplan and Greenwood both stressed that any new federal law should not prevent scientists from using cloning technology to create cells for skin or organ transplants or other medical uses.

Greenwood said he worried that inviting representatives of the Quebec-based religious group, who call themselves Raelians, would turn the hearing into a "circus." But the group's claims, he said, merit concern. Greenwood said he has heard that the Raelians have set up a secret cloning venture somewhere in the United States.

The group is headed by a former journalist, singer/songwriter and race car driver, Claude Vorilhon, now called Rael. Its Web site claims it has 50,000 members, that it has raised large sums of money, and lined up 50 women who have agreed to bear these cloned babies. They advertise cloning services for $200,000 a baby.

Cloning sidesteps the normal process of conception. Scientists found they could start a new life by taking an ordinary cell, transferring its genetic material to an emptied-out egg, and tricking it into growing into an embryo. The new animal shares a genetic code with a single "parent", and is, in theory, an identical twin separated in age.

MIT's Jaenisch said he will testify that there are many miscarriages of cloned animals, and those born alive often show defects.

"They are overweight, have lung problems, poor circulation, kidney problems, brain abnormalities very few grow to be healthy adults." He and other scientists are trying to figure out why.

While many respected scientists are interested in cloning cells and tissues, scientists whom Caplan called "nuts, loonies and renegades" have latched onto the technology as a way to create babies.

First there was Chicago-based physicist Richard Seed, who in 1998 announced he would create a human clone, perhaps of himself or his wife. Then came the Raelians, who last year claimed they had $500,000 from a couple who wanted a replica of a child who had died.

More recently came the cloning plans of a team headed by Avi Ben Abraham, former president of the American Cryonics Society, a nonprofit firm that freezes peoples' bodies and tissues with the hope that they can be brought back to life. Abraham works with Panos Zavos, a reproductive physiologist who recently left a position at the University of Kentucky over their controversial plans.

Abraham and Zavos recently announced that they had gathered a number of infertile couples who want to use cloning to have a baby. They are seeking a country that will let them do the procedure, possibly Israel.

Brigette Bosselier, who is head scientist for the Raelians, said that cloning is a religious directive for her group. Raelians believe that humans were created 25,000 years ago by scientists from another solar system, using cloning and other technology.

"These people created us and we are now able to recreate ourselves," she said in a phone interview from Valcort, in Quebec. "Re-creation is actually what other religions will call reincarnation," she said. Ultimately the Raelians plan to learn how to re-implant their personalities into the cloned bodies and achieve "a path to eternal life," she said.

Gregory Pence, a bioethicist at the University of Alabama, worries the Raelians "are going to be used to show that everybody who wants to originate a child by cloning is nuts."

Pence, author of the 1998 book "Who's Afraid of Human Cloning, said that whether making children through cloning is wise, it should be an individual decision. The government, he said, has no place in telling people what they can and can't do when it comes to matters of reproduction.

"I'm pro-choice," he said. "More choice is better than less choice," whether its abortion or high-tech fertility treatment.

Caplan, however, argued that there seems to be an absence of people with sound arguments for a rush to human cloning. And he's skeptical of those who say they're on the verge of success.

"None are more than scam artists, publicity hounds, or pathetic fringe cult figures," he said. "None of them are worth worrying about."

 

 


 

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