ROME, APR. 7, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The issue of cloning came up again when in February an Italian doctor, Severino Antinori, announced his desire to be the first to clone a human. CNN reported March 22 that Antinori´s declaration was tinged with anti-Catholic rhetoric, when he later accused the Vatican of starting a new Inquisition against science.
Antinori´s attack on the Church came when he was called up by the national association of Italian doctors to explain his plan before a medical council in Rome. Even though Italy has no legislation prohibiting cloning, the doctors association declared its opposition to Antinori´s plans.
A member of the team gathered by Antinori, Panayiotis Zavos, a fertility expert from the United States, affirmed that 700 couples have volunteered to take part in the project. Zavos said the team has unlimited private funds to create the first baby with the same genetic makeup as one of its parents.
Many ethical experts and scientists have voiced their doubts about cloning humans, but support for the idea is growing in some circles. A Time magazine study of cloning, published Feb. 19, reported on the case of Randolfe Wicker, 63, spokesman for the Human Cloning Foundation. He is planning to have some of his skin cells stored for future cloning. “If I´m not cloned before I die, my estate will be set up so that I can be cloned after,” he says. As a homosexual, Wicker is frustrated that he cannot readily have children of his own, according to Time.
Others supporting cloning are the libertarians who don´t like politicians or clerics or ethics boards interfering with what they believe should be purely individual decisions. Some people are moved by emotional factors, and want to clone in order to replace a lost child, or even a mother who is dying of cancer, Time reported.
At the moment, general public opinion in America is not in favor of cloning. A recent poll showed 90% of respondents who thought it was a bad idea to clone human beings, Time said.
Much of the research into cloning is being done secretly, and news of the first human clone may come to light only after the deed is done. The team that cloned the Scottish sheep Dolly waited until she was 7 months old to announce her existence.
Apart from moral considerations, those who wish to clone humans will face considerable scientific difficulties, as recent reports have made clear. The Washington Post reported March 7 that 95% to 97% of all efforts to clone animals end in failure. Based on experience with animals, the Post quoted experts who declared that out of a 100 possible human clones, almost all will abort spontaneously because of genetic or physical abnormalities, putting the health and lives of the mothers at risk.
Of the handful of clones that make it to term, most will have grossly enlarged placentas and fatty livers, the article said. And of the three or four fetuses that may survive their birth, most will be monstrously big, perhaps 15 pounds, and will likely die in the first week or two from heart and blood vessel problems, underdeveloped lungs, diabetes or immune system deficiencies.
With access to an intensive care unit, perhaps one of those 100 clones will survive, scientists said. It will bear the hallmark of most animal clones: a huge navel, a remnant of the oversized umbilical cord that inexplicably develops during most pregnancies involving clones.
According to the Post, many suspect that these problems arise from genetic “imprinting,” a poorly understood molecular mechanism through which genes inside sperm and egg cells are turned on or off in preparation for early embryonic and fetal development. As clones are not made from sperm and eggs, with their properly imprinted DNA, problems occur. Moreover, no test today is capable of determining whether a cloned embryo´s genes are properly imprinted, so it´s impossible to weed out abnormal embryos — even if this were morally acceptable.
The New York Times also examined this problem, March 25, and according to Dr. Brigid Hogan, a professor of cell biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “it would be morally indefensible” to clone humans given this situation.
Another scientist who condemned human cloning because of its high failure rate among animals is Ian Wilmut, who led the team behind Dolly the sheep, the Guardian reported March 29. Wilmut said it would be “extremely cruel” for the mothers and resultant children.
In an article in the U.S. journal Science, Wilmut denounced the plan of the Italian and U.S. fertility specialists Antinori and Zavos to clone humans. Wilmut warned that four years of experiments on animals had shown the cloning technique to be deeply flawed, exacting a huge toll of miscarriages and deformities. “There is no reason to believe that the outcomes of attempted human cloning will be any different,” he wrote.
U.S. Congress hears testimony
In America, concerns that researchers may try to clone a human moved federal legislators to consider a law banning such experiments. At the end of March a congressional panel heard evidence from scientists, who testified that human cloning would probably produce deformed babies, the Associated Press reported March 29.
The Food and Drug Administration says any human cloning experiments in the United States would need its approval and, based on safety concerns, the agency would not approve any applications at this time. But some people fear that federal law may not be strong enough to back up FDA´s authority, and they want a ban in place.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President George W. Bush will work with Congress on a federal statute banning cloning and said Bush supports the ban in place since 1997 on federal funding for this research. The law is necessary, according to its proponents, because the restrictions on funding do not affect private financing of cloning experiments.
A scientist affiliated with the Raelian religious group, which favors human cloning, said her organization has begun cloning research at an undisclosed location in the United States, the Washington Post reported March 29. The comments at the congressional hearings 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.
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.
Debate is also under way in Canada over human cloning. A federal government discussion paper proposes that scientists should be permitted to use human embryos as raw material for medical research, the National Post reported March 30. The same government paper proposes that cloning humans to obtain fetal tissue ought to remain forbidden.
As debate continues on this matter, it can only be hoped that common sense will prevail, and that the numerous scientific and moral problems involved with cloning humans will prevent rash actions in such a delicate matter as the generation of new lives.