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Published: Friday, 1/3/2003

Have human clones arrived?

THE question of “to clone or not to clone” may be already be moot. An outfit called Clonaid says an American woman has given birth to a cloned baby girl. Also, an Italian fertility doctor promises that a cloned baby boy will be born some time this month, and the British government says it is underwriting human embryonic stem cell research.

The baby girl's DNA has yet to be matched to its mother's by an independent scientist, leaving the proof of Clonaid's claim in question. The firm, founded in 1997 after Dolly the sheep's birth was announced, and whose principals are associated with the Raelian religion, says an independent assessment will occur soon.

All these things come as the Bush Administration is planning a fresh fight to ban all forms of cloning, even that of human embryos used in stem-cell research to remedy disease. This administration's take is that life begins at conception and ends in a natural death.

But with global competition in embryonic and stem cell research in the mix, any ban would signal the United State's intent to pull back and cede research - and some of our best scientific talent - to other countries.

The 55,000 or so Raelians think we are all clones of alien beings. The Raelian leader, a former French journalist who calls himself Rael, claims to have been enlightened by these creatures while visiting a volcano in the 1970s. Raelians call cloning “scientific creation,” an alternative to evolutionary theory and creation dogma.

There is plenty of reason, in light of results of animal cloning to ban the creation of a human being using the process. The animal experiments have resulted in creatures with birth defects and other problems of apparent genetic origin as they age. It is irresponsible and unethical to open this door wide until procedures have been refined to guarantee healthy beings.

On the other hand, the development of stem cell research has shown great promise for the treatment of certain diseases. It would be equally irresponsible to curtail that.

It also turns out President Bush was incorrect when he banned creation of new embryonic stem cell lines with tax dollars, assuring us that the 70 existing lines were plenty. The National Institutes of Health said in November that there are nine lines.

The administration seems motivated not by reason, or a glimmer of what science is about, but by personal dogma that is far from universal.

Human cloning raises many troubling ethical and moral issues. But there is plenty of incentive to keep an open mind about embryonic stem cell research and the potential benefits of therapeutic cloning.

The White House and Congress should be able to discern the difference.

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