Scientists Testify on Human Cloning Plans
By Rick Weiss
A scientist affiliated with an obscure religion that favors human cloning yesterday said her group has begun cloning research at an undisclosed location in the United States. She would not say whether she would obey a recent warning from the Food and Drug Administration not to clone a person without that agency's approval.
The bold comments to a House subcommittee by Brigitte Boisselier, scientific director of the Raelian religion, appeared to catch several lawmakers by surprise, even though the work she described involves only cow cells and her claims could not be verified. House members said Boisselier's report, along with similar testimony yesterday from another scientist pursuing human cloning in a separate venture, strengthened their conviction that the nation needs a legislative ban on human cloning.
Boisselier's assertions before the subcommittee on oversight and investigations came as President Bush made his first comments on human cloning legislation, saying through White House press secretary Ari Fleischer that he would support a law banning the practice.
"The president believes that no research -- no research -- to create a human being should take place in the United States," Fleischer said, adding that the president would work with Congress to develop such a statute.
Several scientists and doctors at yesterday's hearing argued against such a ban, however, saying it would be almost impossible to word a law that would not also block legitimate biomedical research. Others said a ban on human cloning would undercut physicians' right to practice medicine and infringe on people's fundamental right to reproduce as they see fit.
In a lively five-hour hearing in which some scientists accused cloning proponents of playing down the risks of human cloning, the FDA also fielded withering criticism from House members for doing "too little too late" to regulate the quickly evolving field of cloning research.
Both Boisselier and Kentucky scientist Panos Zavos, who has said he is laying the groundwork for his own human cloning clinic, publicized their intentions months ago. Yet only this week, the subcommittee learned, did the FDA contact the two scientists to warn them that they should not proceed without first submitting their protocols for FDA review.
If the agency waits much longer before acting aggressively, warned the subcommittee's chairman, James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), a human clone is going to be growing in a woman's womb somewhere in the United States. "My sense is that would pose a fairly difficult enforcement situation," Greenwood said dryly.
Expressing doubts about whether the FDA even has the legal authority to regulate cloning, Greenwood and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) yesterday ended the hearing by saying the committee would introduce legislation to ban human cloning, probably soon after the Easter recess.
"What we heard today is that these people are serious enough and scary enough to get our attention," committee spokesman Ken Johnson said.
The committee's bill will not be the first. Rep. Brian Kerns (R-Ind.) yesterday introduced the first of what could eventually become a raft of bills this session aimed at prohibiting, with varying degrees of specificity, research that could lead to the cloning of a human being.
Cloning involves the creation of a duplicate animal (or, in theory, a person) from a single adult cell. Scientists have successfully cloned sheep, mice, goats, cattle and pigs, but the vast majority of efforts still end in failure. Of the few that succeed, many involve newborn clones that die soon after birth because of serious defects -- a major reason why many scientists believe that, moral arguments aside, the science is too young to be used on people.
In March 1997 President Clinton issued an executive order banning the use of federal money for any project involving the cloning of humans, but no law limits such research with private funds.
In January 1998, Clinton urged Congress to pass legislation quickly that would ban human cloning for at least five years. But no bill passed, in part because of intense lobbying by biomedical researchers and patient groups. Those groups fear that a loosely worded ban might inadvertently interfere with relatively noncontroversial research on cloned genes and cells, which is expected to lead to novel therapies.
Yesterday's hearing included widely divergent views on the safety of human cloning. Zavos, the Kentucky reproductive physiologist and former University of Kentucky professor who has said he will open an offshore cloning clinic soon, testified under oath that only a small proportion of cloned animals harbor serious defects.
"I'm surprised to hear that from a professor of biology," countered Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Rudolf Jaenisch, who called Zavos's comments "totally irresponsible and totally misleading." In fact, Jaenisch said, "I don't believe there is a single normal clone in existence."
Zavos told the subcommittee that he hoped to clone a person within two years, but at a location outside the United States where the FDA has no authority.
Boisselier, whose group believes that humans are clones of extraterrestrials, said she would not reveal where her team's U.S. work was being conducted, other than to say it was not in one of the several states that had passed anti-cloning legislation. She said she received a letter from the FDA on Monday explaining the rules for such research. But she wanted to speak to her lawyer, she said, before deciding whether to accept the FDA's assertion of authority over cloning, which has never been tested in court.
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