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Confronting Cloning

Richard Seed, the maverick Chicago physicist who describes his attempt to clone a human as a “godlike” quest, is just the kind of brash scientist that the federal government needs to rein in with legislation. But the aptly named Seed is right when he says cloning techniques have in recent months advanced faster than we could have imagined.

U.S. scientists are expected to soon report the first use of a cloned human vein in animal experiments, and last week Wisconsin researchers reported that they could grow embryos from a wide range of mammalian species in cows’ eggs. Recent research has thoroughly disproved the notion that human reproduction is somehow different from that of all other mammals.

Given the rapid pace of science, the recent scramble to put controls on indiscriminate scientists like Seed is understandable. But anti-cloning legislation has been written so hurriedly that it often has had unintended consequences. Last year, for example, California legislators, intending to ban human cloning, passed a bill so sloppily worded that it prohibits a host of infertility treatments.

One such treatment would help women who have become infertile because their eggs have hardened with age. Infertility specialists can now get around this problem by removing the nucleus of a donor egg, replacing it with nuclei from the woman and her husband and implanting the egg in the woman’s uterus. This technique, a far cry from cloning, has become illegal in California because the new law prohibits doctors from transferring any nucleus into a human egg.

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Still, the idea of allowing people to create exact genetic replicas of themselves unsettles America’s collective moral and ethical values, and some kind of moratorium on human cloning is called for. The challenge is wording such a law so that it does not impede useful research.

A good model is legislation proposed by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is expected to draw from that model in a bill she is now drafting to forbid creating “a human child using somatic cell nuclear transfer.” This would put the prohibition where it belongs: on the actual making of a baby.

In the coming month, Congress plans to consider bills by Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) that would impede medical advancement by prohibiting scientists from introducing genetic material into a human egg “for the purpose of making a human clone.” But genetic research techniques likely to fall under this description allow scientists to see how individual genes are turned on and off during cell division and thus learn how to switch off the genes that cause debilitating illnesses like Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis. Scientists also need cloning techniques to find out how DNA is used to produce specialized cells. Understanding this might allow people with heart disease to grow arteries instead of having bypass surgery.

The discovery that higher mammals can be cloned is more a cause for hope than dismay, for it is likely to inspire a host of medical advances. The challenge for Congress is to distinguish between the lunatic fringe of science and the usefulness of medical research techniques that involve manipulation of genetic material. Wise legislation would distinguish between the yearning of the infertile couple for a child with both of their genes and the troublesome vault into the ethical unknown of human cloning.


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