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Published: Tuesday, 4/3/2001

The uncertainties of cloning

By all outward appearances, Dolly was a cloning experiment gone right. She brought much acclaim to Scottish researchers who succeeded in cloning - using DNA to replicate a living organism - to produce the world-famous sheep in 1997. But Dolly was the exception to the rule as many previous and subsequent cloning attempts on animals have shown.

It is the fear of what could go wrong in future cloning attempts that has Congress and mainstream scientists justifiably alarmed by the renewed push to clone humans. Their legitimate concerns could lead to a ban on human cloning and research in the United States, at least until there is a broad public debate in the country and consensus can be reached not only by society but among scientists and ethicists.

The issue has come front and center again before a congressional panel and the White House because two groups of scientists say they are intent on cloning human beings within the next year or two. They staunchly defend their plans to help infertile couples who want a biologically-related child and liken public apprehension with the prospect to initial qualms over in vitro fertilization.

But cloning is a vastly different undertaking. In vitro fertilization does not remove the DNA of a human egg and replace it with cells from an adult or dead child - as is proposed by one group of scientists testifying in Washington. The resulting human baby would be a clone, not a genetically distinct offspring.

The cloned infant would also likely be afflicted with serious heart, kidney, and brain defects if it actually survives to term in the womb, according to scientists cloning mice and experimenting with other mammals. Moreover, they say, abnormalities not detected in a human embryo may well appear after the baby is born.

The researchers testified that the imperfect cloning technique has created myriad health and developmental problems in most if not all of the cloning subjects. “I believe there probably isn't a normal clone around,” said Rudolph Jaenisch, referring to animals cloned thus far.

Scientists arguing for experimentation insist problems with animal cloning do not apply to potential human cloning. They also suggest “the genie's out of the bottle” and human cloning projects will proceed if not in the U.S. than in other countries where successful scientists will share in the fame and fortune when the human Dolly arrives.

That may be, but for now this is a realm full of ethical and moral dilemmas that neither society nor science is close to resolving. Disposing of genetically flawed animals doesn't generate anywhere near the uproar we'll see when it's a human life at stake.

The world may be technically able to produce a cloned human in the near future, but it is far from ready for the eventuality.



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