Human cloning is now 'inevitable'

<i>Independent</i> survey reveals Britain's leading medical scientists predict 'reproductive cloning' within 20 years despite public opposition
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The Independent Online

Many of Britain's most eminent medical scientists believe the birth of a cloned baby is inevitable despite society's current aversion to the idea.

Many of Britain's most eminent medical scientists believe the birth of a cloned baby is inevitable despite society's current aversion to the idea.

More than half of a panel of 32 scientists surveyed by The Independent said "reproductive cloning" would be attempted within 20 years if the technical and safety issues could be overcome. Their views stand in stark contrast to the public's vehement opposition to human cloning, which many people associate with fictional visions of armies of identical dictators.

A majority of the scientists interviewed, who included Lord Winston and Professor Richard Dawkins, also believe that if the use of limited "therapeutic cloning" for embryonic stem cells is successful, it will lead to a re-evaluation of the present law banning reproductive cloning of an adult.

A significant minority of those who took part in the survey - more than one in five - felt that reproductive cloning could also be justified on medical grounds, if for instance it was the only way for a couple to have a child of their own.

Later this year, MPs will be given a free vote on whether to allow limited therapeutic cloning. Opposition groups are expected to argue that to allow limited cloning of human embryos is "playing God" and will create a "slippery slope" leading to the cloning of an adult.

The results of the survey confirm what many medical scientists have said privately about the inevitability of someone, somewhere attempting the cloning of a human being even though it is banned in Britain and outlawed in many other countries.

One medical director of a London fertility unit, who did not wish to be named, went as far as to say: "The equipment needed for cloning is simple and cheap, and, whether it is approved of or not, it will happen. It is unstoppable."

In our survey of doctors and scientists, many of whom have acted as government advisers, it was the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) specialists who took the most sympatheticline towards human reproductive cloning.

Peter Brinsden, medical director of the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, said: "Reproductive cloning for ethically approved, very limited indications would now be acceptable to a large portion of society if explained properly.

"Society's views on these difficult issues will change over the next 10 to 20 years, in the same way they have over the past 20 years with many contentious subjects in the field of assisted reproduction."

Lord Winston, the foremost IVF expert in Britain, also believes that reproductive cloning will be attempted, although he said it could not be medically justified. "It is difficult to predict how society will think about these issues in 20 years' time," he said.

Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University and an acclaimed author on evolutionary biology, also believes that reproductive cloning will eventually be attempted and that it might be justified. He said: "People who object to research of this kind must explain exactly who would, in their view, be damaged by it. Phrases like 'playing God' form no part of a valid argument."

Many of the scientists who were interviewed emphasised that although they believe human cloning would happen, they personally hoped that it would not.

Azim Surani, of the Wellcome CRC Institute in Cambridge and a member of a Royal Society working party on cloning, was one of those who believed that reproductive cloning would not happen. "Even if reproductive cloning is ultimately shown to work, it would be a big step to proceed to reproductive cloning," Dr Surani said. "It is not possible to predict the outcome from reproductive cloning, as there are numerous and unpredictable detrimental effects on the resulting offspring. The risk will outweigh potential benefits for the foreseeable future."

Professor Richard Gardner, who chaired a Royal Society committee on cloning, believes human cloning will be attempted provided the technical and safety issues can be addressed and people understand what cloning really means.

He said: "While there is likely to be a striking physical resemblance, the clone would differ from the original in most of the higher mental attributes that define an individual."

The big unknown, at present, is whether the technical and safety issues will ever be addressed. It took 277 attempts to clone Dolly the sheep - a success rate that has since improved but which is still inadequate to attempt a similar approach on human eggs.

Some cloning experts believe safety issues will prevent attempts at human reproductive cloning for many years to come. Austin Smith, an Edinburgh scientist who works on embryonic stem cells, said it was "not possible to address the technical and safety issues involved".