Facebook Twitter

Panel rejects human cloning

Academy is at odds with Bush over research

SHARE Panel rejects human cloning

WASHINGTON — The creation of babies that are genetic replicas of adults is unsafe and should be outlawed, a panel of scientific experts said Friday. But citing the promise of research, the panel said scientists should be permitted to clone embryos to treat disease.

In favoring research cloning, the committee from the National Academy of Sciences put itself at odds with President Bush, who opposes cloning for any reason. It was the second time that experts from the academy, an independent research institution that often advises policymakers, have contradicted the president on this issue.

At a briefing with reporters Friday, the president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, made it clear that Bush did not intend to change his mind, saying the president "looks at these issues from a scientific and moral standpoint."

The report comes as the cloning controversy is again heating up in Washington. As the panel announced its findings in the academy's headquarters here, Bush's newly appointed Council on Bioethics was meeting across town and engaged in an impassioned discussion of the ethical questions of cloning.

That comes as the Senate is preparing to consider legislation, backed by President Bush, to ban any type of cloning, either for reproduction or research. Scientists and advocates for patients, who argue the ban should be limited to reproductive cloning, said Friday's report provided them important ammunition for their fight on Capitol Hill.

"It clarifies the arguments that there is a difference between trying to reproduce a human being through cloning and trying to cure a human being through using the same technologies," said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, an advocacy group

in Washington. He described the report as "a tremendous benefit."

In cloning, called nuclear transplantation by scientists, researchers remove the nucleus of a woman's egg and replace it with the nucleus of another cell, typically a skin cell, from an adult. The reconstructed egg is then stimulated, often with electricity, to begin dividing.

In reproductive cloning, the resulting embryo would be implanted into a woman's womb, where it would grow into a fetus. Alternatively, scientists could use the embryo to harvest stem cells, specialized cells that might be used to treat a range of conditions, from diabetes to heart disease. This is often called therapeutic, or research cloning.

Scientists and patients' advocates see research cloning as an important avenue of medical inquiry. But because embryos are destroyed by the experiments, the work leaves many people deeply uneasy.

While the National Academy of Sciences is often called upon by Congress to issue reports and provide advice, Bruce M. Alberts said the institution conducted the cloning report at its own initiative and expense.

The report focused largely on reproductive cloning. A separate panel, which examined issues relating to stem cell research, had already issued a recommendation supporting therapeutic cloning. But that report was released on Sept. 11, and the results were scarcely noticed.

In releasing the report Friday, Dr. Irving L. Weissman, professor of cancer biology at Stanford University and the panel's chairman, said his group supported the previous committee's conclusions. To ban therapeutic cloning, he said, "would certainly close avenues of promising medical and scientific research."

In deeming reproductive cloning unsafe, the scientists cited a litany of animal cloning experiments that had failed, resulting in animals that either died in the womb or were born with severe deformities.

"Human reproductive cloning should not now be practiced," the authors wrote. "It is dangerous and likely to fail."

But in calling for a law that would ban the practice, the panel took a highly unusual step. Neither Weissman nor two other academy experts who met with reporters to discuss the findings could recall scientists' advocating a ban on a type of medical experiment.

"It is a serious matter for a group such as ours to recommend any form of restriction on research," Weissman said.

Dr. Mark Siegler, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago, who also served on the panel, said "there clearly was unease" about the recommendation."

But after hearing testimony over the summer from three scientists who said they intended to attempt to clone a human being, the panel concluded that "no voluntary system that is established to restrict reproductive cloning is likely to be completely effective."

The proposal to limit a cloning ban to reproductive cloning drew strong criticism from Richard Doerflinger, an official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The group strongly opposes any type of cloning, arguing that to create and destroy embryos for the purposes of science is to interfere with the sanctity of human life.

In testimony before the president's Council on Bioethics on Friday, Doerflinger said, "We should resolve the issue by forbidding people to make a clone, not forbidding them to be a clone."

In recommending the ban, the academy's experts said the legislation should be reviewed within five years, but should be reconsidered only if new scientific and medical literature indicated cloning people would be safe, and if "a broad national dialogue on the societal, religious and ethical issues" suggested reconsideration.

The question of whether to ban cloning, or how far such a ban should extend, was also the matter of intense debate Friday.

None of the members, who include legal and ethical scholars, doctors, scientists and a journalists, defendedreproductive cloning.

But on the matter of therapeutic cloning, there was wide disagreement.

One member, Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College, argued that in using embryos for research, scientists should regard them the way doctors look upon organs for transplant. When a patient is brain dead, he said, his organs are harvested. Like the brain-dead patient, the embryo also lacks a brain.