WASHINGTON — Concerned that a few researchers may try to clone a human despite the risks, lawmakers are planning legislation outlawing such experiments. The White House says President Bush will sign the bill.
Scientists told a congressional panel Wednesday that efforts to clone humans are ethically treacherous and likely to produce deformed babies. While someone might want to clone himself, ethicists said, a resulting baby would have no choice in the matter.
"We're dealing with the most profound of human responsibilities — the future of our species," said Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee.
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 cloning opponents worry that federal law may not be strong enough to back up FDA's authority, and some want a ban in place even if safety concerns are satisfied.
Proponents countered that cloning holds promise for infertile couples hoping to have a biologically related child and likened their work to early efforts at invitro fertilization. Other advances, they argued, such as organ transplants or new surgical techniques, also took time to perfect.
But as the six-hour hearing came to a close, Greenwood and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the committee's chairman, each said they would introduce legislation to ban cloning humans.
"Cloning may literally threaten the character of our human nature," Tauzin said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said 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 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."
Clones are created when the genetic material from a single cell is injected into an egg cell that has had its genes removed. The resulting baby would be like an identical twin born years later.
Ethicists note that the clone would not be a copy of the original person. He or she would grow up in a different environment at a different time, said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
And Caplan argued that both science and circumstance suggest human cloning is not imminent.
"To date, a collection of kooks, cranks, cultists and con-men have been the sole members of the club announcing that cloning will soon be used to make a human," he told the subcommittee.
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.
"Nothing should stop science," said Rael, leader of a religious organization called the Raelian Movement, which argues that life on Earth was created by extraterrestrial scientists.
He started a lab that now vows to clone a human somewhere in the United States soon. Another group, led by an Italian fertility doctor, is promising to find another country, where it is legal, within a year. Both teams say they have people ready to volunteer for the first human effort.
Brigitte Boisselier, who directs Rael's lab, told the subcommittee that her company received a letter this week from the FDA warning that it would be against the law to proceed with cloning without permission. Boisselier said she did not know whether Clonaid would proceed anyway.
She 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 was prohibiting human cloning without stopping research using similar techniques to fight disease. On Wednesday, several experts suggested a moratorium on cloning that would be revisited in a few years.
On the Net: House Committee on Energy and Commerce: www.house.gov/commerce/