Scientists call for law to stop human cloning

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S leading cloning scientist yesterday joined in a call for a legal ban or moratorium on producing cloned children.

But Ian Wilmut, head of the team which produced the cloned sheep Dolly, pointed out that the key technology behind cloning could also produce major benefits in combating lethal diseases.

At the world's premier general science meeting, the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel envisaged a world in which cloned children grew up confused as to who they were meant to be while lawyers argued and judges puzzled about who their legal parents were.

Dr Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, said the overriding question should be: "Is it in the child's interest? My judgement is no."

If you combine today's well-established surrogate birth and in vitro (test tube) fertilisation technologies with tomorrow's potential for cloning, there are no less than 13 different possible combinations of parents for the child produced by such a high-tech union, said Lori Andrews, of the Chicago Kent College of Law. It all depended on what legal definition one uses.

"If Bill Gates created an identical twin [using cloning] a variety of laws might be applied to determine the cloned child's parenthood, with differing results."

In some parts of the United States, the boy's legal parents would actually be the parents of the software billionaire.

If the Gates clone was born of a surrogate mother who rented her womb to him, then in Arizona and Utah the boy would be considered the legal offspring of this woman and her husband.

There's no suggestion Mr Gates is considering cloning himself. In any case, scientists are sure that this would not be possible for at least five to ten years. There are still big questions about the health and viability of farm animals produced by cloning and the success rate is extremely low.

Indeed, there is intense interest amongst scientists as to when any other laboratory will report that it has been able to repeat the cloning Dr Wilmut's team achieved with Dolly.

"I'd need to see herds of healthy, cloned farm animals before I was confident it could be done for humans," said Arthur Caplan, director of Pennsylvania University's Centre for Bioethics.

But once it was possible, what would the prospects be for a cloned child, mused the panel. From his or her knowledge of his genetically identical parent/twin he or she could guess how tall he/she would grow, and even get some idea of how long he/she might live.

If he was a copy of a vain, wealthy, male high achiever - the classic wannabe clonee - then the child would grow up with the oppressive knowledge that he was expected to repeat his father/twin's brilliance in sport, business or any other field.

As Glen McGee, another University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, said: "They lose their right to an open future."

Ronald Cole-Turner, of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a minister of religion, said the churches were opposed to cloning, partly because it appeared to offer nothing to the poor, women and children.

Dr Caplan envisaged what he called "the Woody Allen syndrome" after the film director who has just married his adopted daughter.

If an adoring husband cloned his wife, what would his feelings be towards her child/twin as she grew up, decades younger than his real wife? Would they be those of a parent or a lover?

While President Clinton has banned spending any federal money on human cloning, that will not prevent the private sector from forging ahead.

After all, there is a similar ban on federal funding of test-tube baby technology, but the US still has nearly 300 private in vitro fertilisation clinics. The panel felt there was a need for a carefully devised legally enforceable moratorium.