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Scientists Debate Ethics of Human Cloning - 2001-08-07

Scientists attending a conference in Washington on the medical and ethical implications of human cloning say they expect to move ahead with plans to create a genetic copy of a human being despite the fact that the practice is banned in much of the world.

Four years ago, scientists in Scotland successfully cloned a sheep. The birth of "Dolly" immediately raised thorny ethical questions about whether, one day, cloning would and should extend to humans.

Laws have been enacted in much of the world to prevent that. But several scientists at this conference called by the National Academy of Sciences say they are moving ahead with plans to create the world's first human clone, driven by what they say is the considerable demand from infertile couples and others unable to have children.

"We are determined to do this. People need it, people will get it," said University of Kentucky professor Michael Zavos. He is just one scientist who expects to oversee the birth of the first human clone, perhaps within a year.

"We are almost ready and we are going to begin doing human reproductive cloning as early as probably 30 to 60 days from now," Mr. Zavos said.

Fertility expert Severino Antinori is ignoring legal threats in his native Italy and is going ahead, as well, with plans to clone human embryos later this year. Both argue much of the scientific community as well as politicians and ethicists see only the problems and not the successes that cloning has shown in animals.

"They're afraid, they're scared and they're uninformed," Mr. Zavos said.

But even supporters of human cloning admit the science is far from perfect. In fact, cloned animals, including "Dolly" the sheep, have higher rates of birth defects. So scientists like Alan Colman of Scotland, whose work led to the birth of "Dolly" in 1997, consider it morally wrong to create human life under these circumstances.

"There's an above-average and unusual developmental incidence of abnormalities in animals and this will probably occur in humans," said Mr. Coleman. "Practice it is said makes perfect. But is it ethical to practice? And I absolutely think it is not, in the human context."

But those in favor human cloning argue ignorance, fear of being ostracized or even breaking the law is all that's stopping doctors from moving ahead with a procedure which they say has an 80 percent success rate in some animals. Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, director of Clonaid, one of the world's first cloning companies, said "And I think it's our own choice to use our genes the way we want. If you want to have a baby, mixing your genes with someone of your choice, it must be your right. But it's also your right if you want to reproduce yourself using your genes alone."

The U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to ban human cloning, and much of Europe has similar restrictions. The scientists here who intend to move ahead with human cloning are not saying exactly where they plan to do it.