At the headquarters of the Human Cloning Foundation, in the corner of a Greenwich Village lamp shop, more than a half a million people have logged on to the Web site to exchange information. Women volunteering to be surrogate mothers, gay couples looking to produce a biological offspring, narcissists who want to clone themselves.
Cloning used to be considered the subject of science fiction, at least until four years ago when Scottish scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly. Since then, all sorts of creatures have been cloned. Now a few scientists want to see if they can asexually duplicate a human in a laboratory. Not only does the science exist, efforts are already under way to do it. There's no law against it, but there are lots of ethical questions that we are only beginning to deal with in what's shaping up as the first real skirmish in the genetic revolution, reports 60 Minutes Correspondent Steve Kroft.
At laboratories and fertility clinics around the country, scientists, doctors, and even lab technicians have - in theory - figured out how to clone a human being in the laboratory.
Michael West, president of Advanced Cell Technology, says the mechanics of cloning a human would be fairly simple. First, you would remove all the DNA from a female egg, turning it into essentially a container. Next, you would replace the DNA with the cell from a finger of the person to be cloned. And with some electrical prompting, the cell would divide into a human embryo, which would be implanted in a surrogate mother and carried to term, producing a genetic duplicate, or identical twin of the person who donated the cell, a brand new-way of engineering a baby.
The procedure is not illegal.
Some in the scientific community, though, say that human cloning is unethical. Cloning is still a primitive technology even in animals, and it raises complex moral questions about manipulating human life in the laboratory. But that hasn't stopped a number of renegade scientists from announcing their intention to try it.
Dr. Severino Antinori, an Italian fertility specialist who gained notoriety by helping a 62-year-old woman give birth, has teamed up with an American colleague, Panos Zavos, to try to clone the first human at a secret laboratory outside the United States. Zavos says they will be working with 10 infertile couples who are unable to have children any other way.
I think that inevitably this technology will be developed, says Dr. Zavos.
Others are also trying to exploit human cloning. A Canadian UFO cult called the Raelians, which may have as many as 30,000 members worldwide, claims it has received $500,000 from a couple who want to clone their dead child, who died at age 10 months following surgery.
Brigette Boisellier, who is both a Raelian and a chemistry professor at a college in New York state, says the cult has a long line of members eager to donate eggs and serve as surrogate mothers fo that couple who wants to give their dead child another chance at life.
But the notion that you can exactly duplicate an individual is one of many popular misconceptions about human cloning. Cloning cannot help you achieve immortality nor can it resurrect the dead.
You can bring back someone who looks like that person, but unless you recreate their environment and their development, they're not going to be that person, says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He says a clone would be a latter-born twin that would gestate in a different womb, be raised at a different time, and be exposed to different experiences. In other words, it would be a totally different person. But he believes human cloning may eventually find respectability as the reproductive method of last resort for infertile couples.
But that kind of acceptance is a long way off. The United Nations General Assembly passed a declaration denouncing human cloning as contrary to human dignity. President Clinton's Commission on Bioethics called it morally unacceptable. The American Medical Association has called for a moratorium on human cloning, and the formulation of international guidelines. The Catholic Church has condemned it.
Richard Doerflinger, who works with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that human cloning represents a much more radical change in the way humans reproduce than in vitro fertilization.
In vitro fertilization takes place in a petri dish outside the body, but at least you still have a male and female coming together, even in a petri dish, to create a new human being who is, to some degree, an unpredictable mix of both, he says. Now cloning changes that. It leaves aside the meeting of sperm and egg altogether. There's just one nucleus, one set of genetic material You would have a single progenitor and a copy.
Doerflinger says human cloning is just one more step in the march towards manufacturing human beings, and that it raises all sorts of questions about family and kinship that society hasn't even begun to think about.
Says Doerflinger: I think the oddness of cloning can best be appreciated by trying to figure out who are the parents of this child. Genetically, if you clone yourself, genetically that's not even your son. It's your twin brother, born some 40 years later than you were. That child's parents are also his or her grandparents. The things this does to family relationships and the whole notion of parenthood and childhood is very disturbing.
But the most pervasive argument against human cloning, at least in the scientific community, is that we don't know nearly enough about it. And while lots of different kinds of animals have been cloned, not a single scientific study has been done on the health, safety or long-term effects of cloning in animals.
Says Caplan: You simply don't say, 'You know what? I cloned a bull. I cloned a cow. And I've cloned a sheep and 10 mice. Let's do humans.'
The process itself is very inefficient. In animals, it's unsuccessful 98 percent of the time, and produces large numbers of miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects. There is no reason to believe that those results wouldn't be the same in cloning humans.
Dr. Zavos says there is much more available science on human cells and reproduction than on animals, and that the success rate should be much higher. He says his team will be doing regular biopsies on the human embryos and screen out the ones that are not developing normally. But he's acknowledged that some problems are inevitable; the price, he says, for developing any new technology.
But many think that the new technology is unethical. Dolly the sheep was cloned with the idea of giving farmers a superior breed of livestock. And Nazi Germany tried to do the same thing with people, albeit with different methods.
I don't think it's completely science fiction to say that a possible use of cloning among particularly irresponsible people is to make herds, large groups of people who all have the same genetic trait, once it's managed to get engineered into one individual, he says.
I don't think there's any reason why it can't happen, says Doerflinger. That's the thing about cloning. If you can make one, you can make 100 in exactly the same way. That's what it is, is exact replication.
At least 23 countries have already banned human cloning, including Japan, Britain, Israel, Germany and Italy. President Clinton asked Congress to ban it in the United States four years ago, and he prohibited any federal funds from being used in human cloning research. But Congress failed to act, and most of the research in cloning technology is privately funded.
Says Caplan: We assume the FDA is out there keeping an eye on everything that's taking place, and there must be all sorts of regulations and hoops to go through if you're going to do human research or embryo research or genetics research. No. He says that science has gotten way ahead of the law.
Congress has been reluctant to act; cloning, and anything to do with human embryos, is a political minefield. In addition, powerful forces in science and medicine who oppose broad regulation of biotechnology, since some of the same techniques used in cloning are essential to ongoing research into everything from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's Disease.
Thomas Murray, who was a member of the presidential Advisory Commission on Bioethics, says there is virtually no oversight of reproductive medicine in the United States, and thinks there should at least be a law against implanting a cloned embryo in a surrogate mother.
Meanwhile, the effort to clone the first human is already under way. Dr. Zavos says the goal of his team is o clone a human embryo in 18 to 24 months.
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