Overreaction to cloning claim poses other risks

USA Today, Jan. 2, 2003 (Opinion)

Much of the world is now holding its breath, wondering whether Eve, the supposed first-ever human clone, born Dec. 26, is real or a twisted publicity stunt. Her existence certainly sounds like something out of science fiction: announced by the Raelians, a bizarre sect that believes the human race was cloned from aliens 25,000 years ago.

The Raelians’ Clonaid organization promises to provide in coming days scientific proof of Eve’s authenticity through genetics experts, though it refuses to produce Eve or her 31-year-old American mother. It also claims that four more clones are due to be born by February — a statistic that stretches credulity, given that the cloning of mammals since Dolly the sheep in 1997 has usually taken hundreds of tries and produced Frankenstein-leaning deformities.

Whether or not Eve proves to be genuine, any clone would catch Americans spectacularly unprepared. That’s because conservative Republicans and the Bush administration have insisted on pursuing a ban on all cloning. Their overreach overlooks a more sensible alternative: outlawing the morally reprehensible cloning of humans but permitting cellular cloning that could cure ailments from Alzheimer’s to spinal injuries.

True to form, within days of Eve’s birth announcement, conservatives promised a push for Senate legislation to ban all human cloning, mirroring a 2001 House of Representatives bill. Hoping to harness widespread shock over Eve’s birth, Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla., chief sponsor of the House bill, predicts quick passage now that Republicans control the Senate.

Yet such a knee-jerk reaction ignores critical differences between cloning of the human and therapeutic variety:

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Human cloning aims to replicate humans. It requires implanting a cloned embryo into a woman’s uterus. The Raelians’ claims aside, the practice holds moral, ethical and practical risks. Attempts to clone humans are certain to follow the path of animal cloning. That means hundreds of failures and the death within days of most clones that do reach birth. Survivors, even if they seem healthy, could be time bombs with unknown genetic abnormalities. Besides such vexing moral questions as who has the right to clone another person, family relationships and rights would become a minefield of ambiguity: Eve’s “mother,” for example, would really be her twin.

Therapeutic cloning aims to develop medical therapies. Cloned embryos are grown only up to 14 days, long enough to harvest their stem cells, which may eventually prove useful in treating diseases including Parkinson’s, leukemia and diabetes. Embryos aren’t implanted in a woman’s uterus, the step required to clone a human.

Supporters of a total ban would shut off this promising avenue of U.S. research. Yet investigations would continue overseas.

A far more sensible approach was proposed last year, when the National Academy of Sciences called for a five-year renewable ban on the cloning of human beings while allowing research on therapeutic cloning.

Regardless whether Eve is a clone, her announced arrival delivers a call for responsible action. Like it or not, we already are in a brave new world of medical advances.

Better to govern cloning’s responsible development than to keep the current void or enact overly broad laws that would choke off promising research.

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Weird science

Besides cloning, other futuristic experiments may be tried on humans.

Some examples:

Scientists at Boston’s Forsyth Institute plan to grow new tooth crowns, repeating a successful experiment with pigs.

A Harvard team has engineered artificial bladders to be implanted in people and is working on growing penises from scratch.

Australian scientists believe they may soon help women grow new breasts after cancer surgery.

British doctors hope this year to transplant the face of a dead donor onto a living person.

A Japanese team has decapitated infant rats and kept their brains alive and growing.

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This post was last updated: Nov. 30, -0001