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One can expect the debate to be long, hard, and loud

From Diana J. Choyce
Mar 26 - Apr 01, 2001

On 9 March, the announcement we have all expected, was released to the media. Human cloning will be attempted. And with it the expected storm of passionate debate. With the advent of a few successful attempts at animal cloning, the "obvious" progression to human cloning is upon us. Despite the ethical and moral issues that this venture raises, it would appear that scientists are prepared to go through with the project. One can expect the debate to be long, hard, and loud. But it probably will not change the inevitable. The international team is led by U.S. scientist Panayiotis Zavos and includes Italian obstetrician Severino Antinori and Israeli researcher Avi Ben-Abraham. Antinori became famous for helping a 62-year-old woman give birth. He has said: "Cloning creates ordinary children. They will be unique individuals, not photocopies of individuals." Zavos, who first announced the proposal in Lexington, Kentucky, in January, told a symposium that he had been flooded by e-mail from couples seeking to have children through cloning. "Dolly is here and we are next," he said, referring to the sheep that became the first adult mammal clone in 1996. Ben-Abraham said that Judaism is more favourable to cloning than Roman Catholicism.

Italian Severino Antinori and American Panayiotis Zavos told a symposium in Rome that they were motivated solely by the desire to help infertile couples have children. "Cloning may be considered as the last frontier to overcome male sterility and give the possibility to infertile males to pass on their genetic pattern," Antinori told scientists and journalists at the city's Umberto I Polyclinic. "Some people say we are going to clone the world, but this isn't true...I'm asking all of us in the scientific community to be prudent and calm," he said. "We're talking science, we're not here to create a fuss." The team said it planned to produce the babies in a Mediterranean county, but did not say which one. Since the international team said it would work to produce the first human clone, between 600 and 700 couples have put themselves forward and the number is rising rapidly, U.S. doctor Panayiotis Zavos said. "Interest has come from all over, from Japan to Argentina, from Germany to Britain,'' he told reporters after saying his team was ready to start cloning in the next few weeks, principally to help infertile couples bear children. Italian news agency ANSA quoted Antinori as saying it would "very probably'' be Israel. The German news magazine Der Spiegel said the venue would be in Caesarea, an Israeli coastal resort. Antinori was quoted by ANSA as saying he would seek "political and scientific asylum'' in Israel if hostility to his project continued in Italy. Antinori was not available to comment on the ANSA report.

Illegal

The Health Ministry of Israel said that cloning human beings was illegal in Israel and dismissed reports that a reproduction team planned to begin the first cloning of a person in Israel within a year. "The law legislated a year and a half ago prohibits cloning,'' Health Ministry legal adviser Miriam Higher told Israel radio. "The person who clones is guilty of a criminal offense.'' The possibility that Israel could become the site of the first cloned baby generated heated discussions on Israel radio. Israel has been receptive to innovations in reproduction technology, and the country has a large number of fertility clinics. Practices such as in vitro fertilization are widely accepted. However, no senior political or religious figure has spoken out in favour of cloning. "Generally, Judaism considers in positive light any development in medical technology, on the condition that it is intended to save life, to solve problems of fertilization and regarding life expectancy,'' Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Israel Meir Lau told the newspaper Maariv. "Regarding the case spoken about, it is still not clear of its necessity and we should relate to it cautiously.'' Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron was more emphatic: "The idea of cloning people is against Jewish religious law.'' Adam Freedman, a geneticist from Hebrew University, stressed that existing law ensured that cloning would not be allowed. "The law prohibits for five years, starting from last year, any experiment that at the end could result in the cloning of people. There is no possibility of cloning a person,'' in Israel, he told Israel radio.

The Vatican has expressed sadness and dismay at the proposal for this human cloning venture. Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the John Paul II Institute for Bioethics at Rome's Gemelli hospital, said human cloning raised profoundly disturbing ethical issues. "Those who made the atomic bomb went ahead in spite of knowing about its terrible destruction,'' he told Reuters Television before the cloning meeting started. "But this doesn't mean that it was the best choice for humanity.'' "The forecasts about human cloning sadden us but don't scare us,'' he said, adding it would be a betrayal if the Roman Catholic Church's voice was not heard in the debate."These proposals contradict the truth of mankind, man's dignity, man's rights ... especially the right to be conceived in the human way,'' Concetti told Reuters. Scientists have also slammed the plan. A director of Rome's La Sapienza university wrote a letter disapproving of the cloning conference being held in one of its halls. "I consider it disgraceful... and I dissociate myself from the meeting,'' Professor Ermelando Cosmi wrote. Scientists have warned that 97 per cent of animal cloning attempts have been unsuccessful and that those embryos which survive to birth are often deformed. Dr. Ian Wilmut, who created Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, said it had taken 277 attempts to get it right.