Cloned Baby Claim Reopens Policy Debate

Published February 1, 2003

On December 27, 2002, spokespersons for Clonaid claimed to have produced a 7-pound girl named Eve, born to a 31-year-old American woman outside the U.S. Most scientists and journalists greeted the claim with disbelief, but government officials and policymakers are taking the matter seriously.

“The President believes, like most Americans, that human cloning is deeply troubling,” said new FDA Director Scott McClellan. “Despite the widespread skepticism among scientists and medical professionals about today’s announcement, it underscores the need for the new Congress to act.”

In its initial announcement, Clonaid said it would take DNA samples to prove the child was a genuine clone. The company has since withdrawn that pledge, saying the mother feared legal action that would take away the child. Michael Guillen, a freelance journalist who had agreed to oversee the DNA testing by a team of scientists, told USA Today reporters he has suspended his efforts.

The company says it has a list of 2,000 people willing to pay $200,000 to have themselves or a loved one cloned. It claims at least four more cloned babies will be born in the next few months.

Clonaid was established by the Raelian movement, a religious group that believes aliens landed on Earth 25,000 years ago and started the human race through cloning. The founder of the movement, Claude Vorilhon, a/k/a Rael, said Clonaid and the Raelian movement are “very different” and he could not personally vouch for the accuracy of Clonaid’s claims. Clonaid is a U.S.-based company established by Vorilhon in 1997. Brigitte Boisselier, president of Clonaid, is a bishop in the Raelian cult.

Complex Issue

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates human experiments, contends its regulations forbid human cloning without prior agency permission–permission it has no intention of giving. FDA officials have launched an investigation into whether Clonaid illegally performed any of the services for “Eve’s” alleged birth on U.S. soil.

At least in part because there is concern FDA’s authority on the matter won’t hold up in court, there is wide support in Congress for a ban on cloning for the purpose of producing babies. The United States currently has no specific law against human cloning. Observers acknowledge an outright ban would have limited reach, as U.S. citizens could still go abroad to seek cloning opportunities.

Cloning raises not only the possibility of producing babies, but also the possibility of medical breakthroughs–“therapeutic” cloning. Through cloning, researchers can manufacture embryonic stem cells–fundamental building blocks that can develop into any of the 200-plus kinds of tissue found in the human body. Such cloning, already successfully employed in animals to repair damaged nerves and organs, may hold the key to treating such human ailments as heart disease, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injuries.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, backed by President George W. Bush, banning cloning. Liberal Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and conservative Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) partnered last year to advance a bill that would ban only reproductive cloning, arguing that continued research on therapeutic cloning was crucial.

Many scientists believe embryonic stem cells–“master cells” that can form any tissue in the body–may hold keys to lifesaving therapies. One way to get stem cells is to clone an embryo.

Neither side of the issue–proponents of a complete ban, and those who support research for therapeutic cloning only–garnered enough votes to pass their measures.

“Of course, all society–from scientists to politicians–is against human reproductive cloning,” asserted Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech firm in Worcester, Massachusetts that has led the way in cloning human embryos for stem cell research. “No one wants to see 100 copies of Madonna or Michael Jordan. But it would be tragic if this outrage spills over into legitimate medical research that could cure millions of patients.”

“If you allow embryo cloning in research labs because of its supposed great potential,” countered Representative Dave Weldon (R-Florida), who did research in molecular genetics in graduate school, “you’re going to have all these labs with all these embryos, and it will be that much easier for people like the Raelians to try to do reproductive cloning.”

Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) has pledged to reintroduce this session legislation for a total cloning ban. Clonaid’s announcement “should serve as a chilling reminder that individuals are still trying to clone human beings,” said incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), a physician who supports banning all forms of human cloning.

Lawmakers who pushed for the therapeutic-only measure last year studiously avoided comment on the Clonaid announcement, fearing the uproar would harm efforts to keep cloning for medical research legal.

Science vs. Religion

“This science offers us enormous hope,” said Michael Mangiello of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which is preparing to fight again for allowing research on therapeutic cloning to proceed.

Pro-life groups oppose embryonic stem cell research because culling those cells destroys a human embryo. The National Right to Life Committee decried “human embryo farms” in statements urging an immediate ban on such research. Conversely, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supports the research, arguing that a few-celled embryo in a laboratory dish doesn’t deserve the same protections as a person.

Even if Congress succeeds in banning cloning, embryonic stem cells could be culled from embryos left over from fertility treatments, a point Senate Majority Leader Frist makes. In September 2002, California Governor Gray Davis signed into law a measure that requires fertility clinics to tell women they can donate their embryos to research. (See “California Defies Federal Stem Cell Policy,” Health Care News, November 2002.)

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News.