Pandemonium erupts over cloning
CAROLYN ABRAHAM and JOHN IBBITSON
Wednesday, August 8, 2001
TORONTO and WASHINGTON -- At a scientific meeting that at times became raucous and unruly, an Italian doctor outlined his plan yesterday to clone people as a treatment for infertility.
Severino Antinori, a Rome embryologist whose hopes of conducting human-cloning experiments have drawn the condemnation of the Vatican and the Italian government, also raised the ire of peers as he explained his intentions to begin his work in November at two secret laboratories.
Along with two other presenters, Dr. Antinori argued that cloning offers a new option for infertile couples if scientists can create genetic replicas of the mother or father.
But as one scientist after another questioned the presenters' competence and integrity, the international conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington degenerated into a slanging and yelling match, with the various scientists trading insults and accusations of ignorant and unethical behaviour.
"I accuse you of not respecting my animal work," Dr. Antinori shouted over the din at one point.
As lawmakers struggle with scientific advances that are outpacing society's ability to grapple with them, researchers worry the Antinori plan will feed public fears that scientists are running amok. In this case, the defiant doctor says he will impregnate about 200 women with cloned embryos even if he loses his medical licence -- as Italian authorities have warned. "This is reprehensible. It's raising public fears that science can't be controlled," said Art Leder, chief of reproductive medicine at the University of Ottawa and Ottawa Hospital.
Dr. Antinori has also angered other scientists because his well-publicized plan to clone humans jeopardizes their hopes of persuading governments to allow human cloning for medical purposes.
Most researchers in the field, for example, want governments to allow the cloning of human embryos so that they can harvest from them precious stem cells, the blank-slate cells present at the earliest stages of life that have the ability to grow into any tissue or part of the human body.
"The sad thing is that this comes in the midst of intense discussions in Canada and the U.S. on embryonic stem cell research," said Seang Lin Tan, medical director of the Reproductive Centre at McGill University.
The United Kingdom has said it will allow scientists to create human embryos for the purpose of stem-cell research, but bans human cloning. Canada has draft legislation pending that also bans human cloning but permits stem-cell research on embryos left over in fertility treatments. U.S. President George W. Bush is deciding whether his government will fund, or even allow, embryonic stem-cell research. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a ban on human cloning.
Aside from the ethical issues that human cloning touches, most scientists oppose the Antinori plan simply because they think it is premature to practise in people what has so often fouled up in animals.
"We shouldn't be experimenting on human beings unless we can be reasonably sure that it is safe, and we're not," Dr. Tan said.
It's estimated that for every 100 cloning attempts, fewer than five result in live births -- despite the parade of cloned sheep, cows, goats, pigs and mice that has emerged from the world's labs in the past four years.
With the odds stacked so high against the safe cloning of a human, some suspect Dr. Antinori's plan is a publicity stunt.
"Everything about it is phony," said Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. "The scheme is loony . . . we're dupes for taking it seriously."
Because Dr. Antinori's heavily accented English made communication difficult, Panos Zavos, a colleague of Dr. Antinori's and co-director of the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine, defended their cloning plan.
Dr. Zavos maintained that modern medicine is advanced enough to weed out defective embryo clones. "If we refine the technologies, we will get there," he said.
Dr. Zavos argued that embryo clones could be as effective as other methods of assisted reproduction.
Margaret Somerville, McGill's founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, argued that even without the physical risks, cloning humans should be banned.
"The real threats of cloning are to the deep societal values that have never been challenged before," Dr. Somerville said. "We all have our own genetic ticket in the world; we know that there is no other human being like us.
"Yet once you can clone yourself one child, what is to stop from cloning hundreds or thousands?"
Dr. Zavos rejected the notion that it is unethical to reproduce oneself. The differences in both time of life and experience would make two clones more distinct than identical twins, he said.