Clinton Urges Quick Ban on Human Cloning
President Clinton on Saturday urged swift action by Congress to ban human cloning before a maverick Chicago scientist can begin experiments that the president condemned as “untested and unsafe and morally unacceptable.”
Strongly denouncing plans announced last week by Richard Seed, a Harvard-educated physicist, Clinton said human cloning carries profound implications that must be thoroughly debated before it is allowed to proceed.
Clinton, in his weekly radio address, not only renewed his call on Congress to pass pending legislation to impose a five-year moratorium on such experiments but also portrayed Seed as a scientific renegade.
The remarks opened an extraordinary confrontation between a president and an individual scientist over research policy and morality.
“Personally, I believe that human cloning raises deep concerns, given our cherished concepts of faith and humanity,” the president said. “Scientific advancement does not occur in a moral vacuum. . . . We must move with caution, care and deep concern about the impact of our actions.”
Seed, 69, could not be reached for a response. But he said last week that if the United States bans human cloning, he will carry out his intentions elsewhere, and specifically mentioned Mexico, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas.
Seed claimed that he and a team of physicians and scientists he has assembled, but whom he would not identify, are poised to begin attempts to clone human beings.
Cloning is a relatively new genetic engineering technique in which scientists create a genetically identical duplicate, or clone, of an organism.
Though still somewhat in its infancy, cloning already has yielded an array of biomedical and agricultural advances.
Human cloning has never been achieved, so far as is known. In the late 1970s, a then-highly regarded science writer created a sensation by claiming in a “nonfiction” book that an unnamed wealthy man had had himself cloned. But that assertion has been roundly discounted as fiction.
In the normal human reproductive process, an egg and a sperm, each with a half set of chromosomes, fuse to combine the genes of a man and woman, producing an embryo.
In human cloning, the genes of only one parent are used. In the laboratory, scientists would remove the DNA from an egg and replace it with the DNA from the person to be cloned. The embryo then would be implanted in the womb and carried to term. The product, in theory, would be an embryo containing only one person’s genes--hence, a clone.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario, ethicists say, is that unscrupulous individuals would create human clones and then “harvest” their vital organs for medical research or treatment. In a parallel to the current controversy, in the mid-1980s, then-President Reagan verbally attacked a man who had said he intended to broker--for profit--human organs for transplant. The controversy led to a law banning the sale of organs.
Another sobering thought, some say, is that any human might be cloned without his or her knowledge, much less permission. That’s because virtually any human cell can be used for cloning.
Many experts believe that human cloning is at least three years away in terms of technical know-how.
Cloning last made headlines in March when Scottish and British scientists announced that they had cloned a sheep they named Dolly.
Several months later, the 18-member U.S. Bioethics Advisory Commission recommended that human cloning experiments be banned for three to five years.
Clinton responded quickly by issuing an executive order banning federal funds from being used for human cloning. He also submitted legislation to Congress to outlaw such experiments in the U.S. for five years.
Congress adjourned in November without acting on the bill, although it has the support of some key Republicans, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
Saturday, the president opened his radio talk by hailing “the extraordinary promise of science and technology.” But he quickly zeroed in on Seed, although never mentioning his name.
He called Seed’s plans “profoundly troubling,” particularly in light of the “virtually unanimous consensus” among physicians, researchers and ethicists in opposition to the procedure.
Seed said last week that once the technology is perfected, his team could clone as many as 200,000 humans a year.
But it is far from clear that such know-how is at hand. It took scientists 277 attempts before successfully cloning Dolly.
Seed publicly disclosed his intentions Dec. 5 at a Chicago conference on cloning and reproductive physiology.
Seed was a member of the audience and spoke of his intentions from a floor microphone during a question-and-answer period, according to Art Caplan, who was present as a conference speaker.
“His pronouncement was greeted with cynicism, disbelief and hilarity,” Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Saturday in a telephone interview.
Only after Seed’s remarks were broadcast on radio days later did they gain wide notice.
Caplan also was among the experts whom White House aides consulted while drafting Clinton’s radio address.
Aides familiar with the discussions in the White House said Vice President Al Gore, whose interest in science and technology goes back to his days as a congressman and senator in the 1970s and 1980s, played a key role.
Others involved were Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who heads the National Institutes of Health.
They all expressed concerns that outlandish conduct by a scientist could lead to draconian measures that would hamper worthwhile cloning research.
Seed last week scoffed at criticism of his intentions, saying:
“New things of any kind, mechanical, biological, intellectual, always tend to create fear. Then the subject becomes tolerated and ignored. And the third stage, which always happens, is the subject becomes enthusiastically endorsed, and I think the same thing will happen in human cloning.”