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Human Reproductive Cloning

March 29, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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REP. FRED GREENWOOD: The question we must now ask is this: What should we do with this science?

SUSAN DENTZER: Yesterday’s hearing on human cloning was sparked by some startling recent revelations. Earlier this year, American fertility Doctor Panos Zavos announced that he was part of an international cloning consortium. With the aid of a half million dollars donated by a couple whose infant had died following heart surgery, the group announced in Rome that it aimed to produce a new baby cloned from that infant within two years.

DR. PANOS ZAVOS: We don’t intend to clone the Michael Jacksons and Michael Jordans, et cetera, but rather this is a medical intervention for therapeutic cloning.

SUSAN DENTZER: Zavos’ announcement followed earlier claims by a cult based in Canada that it, too, was getting into the business of cloning humans. The cult is named after its leader, a former French race car driver who calls himself Rael. He claims to have encountered aliens when their UFO landed on a volcano in France in the 1970s. In a scene that verged occasionally on the surreal, both Zavos and Rael were among those summoned before a House Energy and Commerce Oversight Panel. Rael, clad in a flowing white robe and sporting a medallion and top knot, told lawmakers that his group was bent on making cloning widely available to millions.

RAEL: Human cloning will make it possible for us to reach eternal life. It is the right of people who want to enjoy the fruit of scientific progress, including human cloning and eternal life, to benefit from it.

SUSAN DENTZER: Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, a French born, U.S.- Trained chemist who leads the Raelians’ effort at a company called Clonaid; she told lawmakers the company was pursuing its plan at a lab in the United States.

DR. BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: I’d like to remind you that when we talk about the first human clone, we are talking about a baby, a very healthy one. And that’s what we want and that’s what we’ll produce.

SUSAN DENTZER: The response was outrage, with many lawmakers vowing to pass legislation to block efforts to clone an entire human being.

REP. CLIFF STEARNS: No mother and no father, no parents and no family. That’s what’ll happen if we allow human cloning. Human cloning is a form of playing god since it interferes with the natural order of creation. We have reached that point in our human history where human cloning is an unethical use of technology.

(Sheep bleating)

SUSAN DENTZER: This wasn’t the first time human cloning has been a hot topic in Congress. After Scottish researchers announced they’d produced a cloned sheep named Dolly, in 1997, lawmakers debated then whether to outlaw human cloning. Although legislation failed to pass, eventually the Clinton administration banned use of federal research dollars on human cloning efforts. As with any other animal, cloning a human is technically possible. First DNA would be taken from a normal body cell, for example a skin cell, of the person who was to be cloned. That DNA would be inserted into the nucleus of a human egg that has had its nuclear genetic material removed. The egg would then reprogram the newly-added genes to begin the process of developing a human embryo. The baby that resulted would be, in effect, a later-born identical twin of the human who was cloned. Zavos told lawmakers, yesterday, that his group intended to set up a lab outside of the United States. Although he said it had not yet cloned a human, it was bent on offering the procedure as a fertility treatment for couples who could not have children any other way.

DR. PANOS ZAVOS: We are talking, Mr. Chairman, about the development of technology that can help people. We are talking about the development of a technology that can give an infertile and childless couple the right to reproduce and have a child and, above all, complete its life cycle.

SUSAN DENTZER: But scientists summoned to testify said that was exactly what would happen. Dr. Tom Okarma heads the biotechnology firm Geron Corporation.

DR. TOM OKARMA: It would be extremely dangerous to attempt human reproductive cloning. In fact, in most animals reproductive cloning has no better than a 3 percent to 5 percent success rate. That is, very few of the cloned animal embryos implanted in a surrogate mother survive. The others either die in utero, sometimes at very late stages of pregnancy or die sometime later. It is simply unacceptable to subject humans to those risks.

SUSAN DENTZER: Rudolf Jaenisch, a leading cloning expert at MIT’s Whitehead Institute, agrees.

RUDOPH JAENISCH: I don’t believe there’s a single normal clone in existence. All clones have some subtle defects. If the defects are serious, they die early in the development. If they are less serious, they go to birth and die at birth.

SUSAN DENTZER: The apparent reason, Jaenisch told lawmakers, is that the process in which the eggs must reprogram the newly inserted genes is greatly speeded up in cloning. That can lead to a variety of deformities and other problems.

RUDOLPH JAENISCH: In normal development, also, reprogramming has to occur. It occurs during egg maturation and sperm maturation. These are very complex processes, which takes years or months in humans. Now what happens in clones? In clones, this nucleus comes in and now has to reprogram its genome probably with minutes, at most hours, because the egg has to divide. And that’s where things go wrong. Most clones die.

SUSAN DENTZER: Scientists derided the assertions of Zavos and Boisselier that they could screen for abnormal embryos and prevent any defective ones from being implanted in the uteruses of surrogate mothers.

RUDOLPH JAENISCH: Are those people ready to produce abnormal children? And I think, what I appear to hear from them is, they are, they are ready to do this, because there is just no way to prescreen embryos for their defects.

SUSAN DENTZER: Most ethnicists who testified yesterday said that was only one of many reasons there should be explicit moves to block human reproductive cloning.

ARTHUER CAPLAN: To put it simply, whether or not you are the same person who cloned you, people will treat you that way. Whether or not you are the same as the person who clones you, you will look in age and succumbed to certain genetic problems that have afflicted your parent, and you may be able to have less of a life, less freedom, less opportunity to be who you want to be than we would normally say is appropriate for human beings.

SUSAN DENTZER: On the basis of these and other arguments, most other major nations have already banned most aspects of human cloning. Yesterday, an official of the federal Food and Drug Administration repeated the agency’s claim that it has the authority to block human cloning at this point on safety grounds.

DR. KATHRYN ZOON: I want you to know that because of the unresolved safety questions on the use of cloning technology to clone a human being, FDA would not permit it at this time.

SUSAN DENTZER: But some lawmakers doubted that was enough.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN: In addition, the FDA’s authority is based solely on safety concerns, not on ethical or moral concerns, and this leaves open the question of whether FDA would permit the cloning of humans, if it became satisfied that it was safe. And since FDA generally does not have the authority to ban cloning on moral and ethical grounds, we should all be concerned that one day the FDA may simply approve the process on a safety basis.

SUSAN DENTZER: Other experts cautioned that any anti-cloning legislation would have to be carefully crafted so as not to block cloning of human cells for therapeutic purposes.

DR. TOM OKARMA: It’s critical, however, to distinguish use of cloning technology to create a new human being– reproductive cloning– from other important and appropriate uses of the technology, such as cloning specific human cells, genes, and other tissues that do not and cannot lead to a cloned human being, so-called therapeutic cloning. These techniques are integral to the production of breakthrough medicines, diagnostics and vaccines.

SUSAN DENTZER: Some members of the panel said they would take those distinctions into account as they developed legislation aimed at barring reproductive cloning.

REP. DIANA DeGETTE: The complexity of the issues, moral, scientific, and ethical, argues for a thoughtful and complete discussion of the issue before we pass legislation.

SUSAN DENTZER: The panel’s chairman, New York Congressman Fred Greenwood, closed the hearing with a vow to introduce legislation soon.