Critics warn of cloning risks
ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Controversial plans by an Italian doctor to try to create the world's first cloned human baby have been fiercely criticised by politicians, ethical groups and scientists alike.
Professor Severino Antinori, who will unveil his plans before the National Association of Sciences in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, hopes to begin a human cloning programme in November using 200 infertile couples. But critics say that the process -- used to create Dolly the sheep in 1997 - carries a very high risk of miscarriage and deformity. Even Dr. Ian Wilmut, who led the team that created Dolly, said it took 277 tries to get it right in a sheep and does not support human cloning.
Ethical and religious groups argue Antinori's team and other cloning researchers are trying to "play God."
Biochemist Art Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN: "This procedure is just not safe."
He said of the animals cloned so far, some had shown abnormal growth rates, others have had abnormalities, and some have unexpectedly died.
"I have to say, if you looked at the animal work that's been done, and the people who really know this procedure of cloning -- that is, veterinarians who try it in animals -- the procedure is just not safe.
"I'm really worried that what they're going to do here is make a dead or deformed baby, not a healthy one."
Antinori's colleague in the attempt, Panos Zavos, said the couples are aware of the risks involved.
"They are willing to take the chance," Zavos, a former University of Kentucky professor, told CNN. "They know that the chances are not even good for them to get pregnant, but that's life. So they are willing to be the guinea pig, so to speak. Of course, we don't look at them that way."
But opposition in the United States has forced them to move their experiments abroad. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all human cloning last month, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has indicated he opposes human cloning as well. Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush said human cloning presented profound moral issues and he welcomed the approval of congressional ban as "a strong ethical statement."
"The administration unequivocally is opposed to the cloning of human beings either for reproduction or research," A White House statement released last week said.
It added: "The moral and ethical issues posed by human cloning are profound and cannot be ignored in the quest for scientific discovery."
But Zavos discounted critics, telling CNN "We do intend to do this, and we do intend to do it right." Although critics have warned that attempts to clone animals have resulted in a high rate of ill or deformed clones, he said, "We intend to do it right or not do it at all."
The UK's Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has also added its voice to the growing criticism over Antinori's plans.
General Secretary Paul Tully told the Press Association: "The parallel procedures used in therapeutic cloning are paving the way for reproductive cloning, however vociferous the protestations from the Government and British scientists that it is not their intention."
He also warned that there was a high risk many cloned babies would suffer health problems or be born with genetic defects.
If couples could travel abroad to countries where the process was legal then it would be "implausible" for Britain to continue banning it, he added.
The British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said reproductive cloning was illegal in the UK any British doctors working on such a project abroad would come under "intense scrutiny."
"We do not have jurisdiction over people going abroad for treatment or for scientists going abroad. We licence IVF centres in this country," a spokesman said.
"The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act says the person responsible for holding a licence needs to be of suitable character.
"If someone was doing that sort of treatment, which is scientifically risky and ethically unacceptable, we would look at their centre very closely and they would come under intense scrutiny."
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