When Chicago entrepreneur Richard Seed announced that he intends to open a human cloning clinic to help infertile couples have babies, the scientific community gasped, doctors shuddered and right-to-life activists grinned, their crusade suddenly energized by the prospect of man trying to play God.
Seed, a retired physicist, says he is merely following up on what Scottish scientists did in 1996 when they cloned Dolly, an adult ewe. Doctors and researchers say Seed is rushing ahead of current cloning technology and irresponsibly giving hope to infertile couples where none yet exists. Religious leaders, especially those on the Christian right, view Seed as a modern Dr. Frankenstein, using science to violate the holiness of human life. And some members of the Republican-controlled Congress are now seizing on those concerns to ram through legislation that would ban the possibility of human cloning forever.
"You might say Mr. Seed is an inadvertent ally of my efforts," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., a right-to-life champion who introduced bills last March banning forever any human cloning in the United States. The legislation has been languishing in committee since then, but its supporters agree that Seed's announcement has injected new life in the matter. "We will be actively supporting this legislation," said Jeff Kwitowski, the executive assistant director for governmental affairs at the Christian Coalition. "This is just one more step toward the breakdown of the sanctity of human life. It's right up there with abortion."
As the political reaction gathers force, scientists and reproductive experts blame Seed for needlessly igniting a firestorm that could affect future cloning research. "There's no reason to believe him," said Gina Kolata, a New York Times science reporter and author of the just-published "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead." "Here's somebody who doesn't have the money, doesn't have a lab and doesn't have anybody who he can reveal to us who is going to do this for him. Why would you believe this?"
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"Nobody knows how to do it yet," said Sean Tipton, Washington director of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "With Dolly, they produced more than 200 fetuses before they got one live birth. It's still dangerous, and you don't experiment on people when you haven't yet figured out how to replicate it reliably in animals."
How far away, realistically, is human cloning? "We need to learn about activating the eggs," says Tipton. "We need to learn about and refine our techniques for the nuclear transfer. All these things need to continue on animals. When we get to the point where 90 percent of the time we try it with a sheep, we're successful, then we should try it on primates. And when we get to the point when we can do it reliably with primates, then, in an appropriate setting, with appropriate institutional review of the experimental protocol, you look for patients willing to give their informed consent and you try it out on a human. But you have to be very careful about getting to the point in the correct manner."
If Ehlers has his way, that point will never be reached. Even if further successful research on animals made experimentation with human cloning more feasible, he would oppose it for "religious and ethical reasons." "What I want is a ban on human cloning forever, period," says Ehlers.
A more measured political response comes from Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who was a transplant surgeon before going into politics. Although he has called human cloning "unacceptable," Frist, who held Senate hearings on the subject last year, has indicated he would support federal funding for cloning animal organs for "transplantation into humans."
Others question whether any legislation banning human cloning would be constitutional. "We have a tradition in this country of not interfering with people's private reproductive decisions," says Kolata. "So there's a real question whether legislation would survive a legal challenge."
In the end, Kolata says, the uproar over Seed's announcement "says more about cloning and the fears and expectations that it raises than it says about the reality of this person who claims he's going to do it."
"This is something that has tantalized people for decades, and now for the first time ever, you can say this is biologically possible. People have never had to confront this before. But things that are so emotionally charged don't just happen because somebody says, 'I'm going to do it.' They happen after a lot of anguish, a lot of debate and a lot of soul searching."