Few issues in science and medicine are more controversial than cloning. The recent revelation that scientists were able to create human embryos brings the debate to a new level. The clamor over cloning reached a higher pitch at the end of November. That's when researchers at Advanced Cell Technology of Worchester, Massachusetts, announced that they'd artificially stimulated a human egg to become an embryo. The scientists say they never intended to create new life from the cloned eggs, which grew to only a handful of cells before dying. Rather, the investigators say they are looking at human clones as a source of stem cells to help fight disease.
"We should not as a society grow life to destroy it," said President George Bush, reacting to the latest development, led the public charge against human cloning. "And this evidence today that they are trying to achieve this objective, to grow an embryo in order to extract a stem cell in order for that embryo to die is bad public policy. Not only that, it's morally wrong in my opinion."
The head of Advanced Cell Technology, Michael West, went on the defensive. In an appearance on NBC's Today Show, Mr. West said his team's intention is to clone cells, not human beings. "It's important to point out we're talking about a little ball of cells that could actually sit on the point of a pin, not just the head of a pin," he said. "There are no body cells of any kind, and they're blank cells. They're like sperm cells and egg cells. They haven't begun to form a human yet. And those are the cells we're talking about using."
However, two researchers one in the United States, the other in Italy say they are now very close to creating the first viable human embryos to implant in a woman's uterus.
"We just don't know very much yet about what the long term health of clones would be in any kind of animal species let alone in human beings," says John Rennie is editor in chief of "Scientific American" magazine. Mr. Rennie notes that most scientists support so-called therapeutic cloning to grow tissues to treat human illnesses, such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.
But he says an overwhelming majority of those in the scientific and medical community opposes reproductive cloning - to create exact copies of human beings because of the potential for disaster. Mr. Rennie gives the example of Dolly the sheep - the world's first cloned animal born in 1996. "She was the result of about one out of 270-odd experiments that those researchers did. No one thinks it would be a good idea to be going through hundreds of human embryos, many of which would be perhaps dying or starting to develop in abnormal ways, in the interest of trying to get one human birth out of that," says Mr. Rennie. "That sounds worrisome to a lot of people, it's bad for the clones and it raises a lot of questions for society at large."
The U.S. Congress has gotten in on the act. At President Bush's urging, members of the House of Representatives in 2001 approved legislation that would ban any laboratory that receives federal money from experimenting with human cloning. A similar bill is stalled in the U.S. Senate.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001