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Human cloning plans face scrutiny

Congress, Bush move toward ban, citing
safety and ethical issues

WASHINGTON, March 28 —  Experts expressed concerns about the safety and ethics of human cloning, even as researchers who plan to move forward defended their plans Wednesday before a congressional panel. Lawmakers raised the possibility of legislation to outlaw such research, a move the White House said President Bush would support.

MEMBERS OF Congress appeared eager to send him the legislation, saying that even if the scientific and safety issues could be overcome, ethical issues remain.
       “Cloning may literally threaten the character of our human nature,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who plans to introduce legislation this spring.
       Rep. Clifford Stearns, R-Fla., went further: “It interferes with the natural order of things,” he said. “People have a right to their own genetic makeup, which should not be replicated.”
       Some researchers and ethicists also are concerned because of the high percentage of failures and deformities seen in animal clones since scientists announced they had cloned Dolly the sheep four years ago.
       While mainstream scientists are unanimously opposed to human cloning, at least for now, two groups of scientists have promised to move ahead within the next year or two.
       They defended their plans before the Commerce oversight subcommittee, likening their work to early efforts at in vitro fertilization. Cloning, they said, can help infertile couples who want a biologically related child.
       “Those that say ban it, those would not be the Neil Armstrongs that would fly us to the moon,” said Panos Zavos, a reproduction researcher who resigned this month from the University of Kentucky to help lead the human cloning effort.

 In any case, Zavos added, there’s no way to stop the science now. “The genie’s out of the bottle,” he said.
       Zavos’ team, which includes Italian Dr. Severino Antinori and Israeli Dr. Avi Ben-Abraham, says it is setting up a human cloning project in an unidentified Mediterranean country, beyond the reach of U.S. law.

The group plans to take cells from an adult and place them into a woman’s egg stripped of its own DNA. The egg would be stimulated to divide and form an embryo. The resulting baby would be a clone. The researchers announced earlier this month that hundreds of couples had already volunteered for their experiment.

Meanwhile, a separate group plans work in the United States. The company, Clonaid, was founded by Rael, the leader of a religious organization called the Raelian Movement.
       A Web site for the Raelian movement says a 4-foot-tall extraterrestrial with almond-shaped eyes visited Rael, previously known as Claude Vorilhon, in 1973 and told him that life was deliberately created by scientifically advanced extraterrestrials using DNA.

 “Traditional religions have always been against scientific progress,” Rael said in written testimony. “Nothing should stop science. ... Ethical committees are unnecessary and dangerous because they give power to conservative, obscurantist forces, which are guided only by traditional religious powers.”
       Brigitte Boisselier, who directs Rael’s lab, told the panel that her company received a letter this week from the Food and Drug Administration warning that it would be against the law to proceed with cloning without FDA permission. Boisselier said she did not know whether Clonaid would proceed anyway.
       The FDA’s Kathryn Zoon, director of biologics evaluation and research, said people proceeding with experiments deemed unsafe could be subject to a $100,000 penalty and up to a year in prison.
       “Because of unresolved safety questions on the use of cloning technology to clone a human being, FDA would not permit it at this time,” Zoon said.

Boisselier dismissed safety concerns, saying the problems have all come in cloning animals and do not apply to potential human cloning. She said she is working with a father who is devastated by the death of his son and wants to clone him.
       The key to avoiding a deformed baby, she said, is simply checking the embryos that are to be implanted in surrogate mothers for genetic problems.
       But that does not solve the problem, said Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Embryos with defects that can be identified will never make it to full term anyway. The problem is with abnormalities that cannot be spotted but will cause defects after the baby is born, he said.
       Only a tiny percentage of cloned animals are born that appear to be normal. And some of these may in fact have brain development problems that are not apparent because animals are not sophisticated enough to demonstrate them, he said.
       Congress worked on legislation banning cloning a couple of years ago, but failed to produce a bill. Among the issues: Banning human cloning without stopping research using similar techniques to fight disease. Research is being conducted into programming embryonic stem cells to turn into specific tissue types that could be used to regenerate nerve cells and those in the heart, potentially benefiting patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease.

Also Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush will work with Congress on a federal statute banning cloning.
       “The president believes that no research — no research — to create a human being should take place in the United States,” he said. “The president believes that any attempt to clone a human being would present a grave risk both to the mother and the child. He opposes it on moral grounds.”
       Fleischer noted that Bush supports former President Clinton’s 1997 ban on federal funds for human cloning research.


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