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Elizabeth Cohen: The possibility of cloning a human

Elizabeth Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen is a medical correspondent for CNN's Health and Medical Unit.

CNN Moderator: At least two groups say they are ready and able to start cloning humans. Who do they say would benefit?

Elizabeth Cohen: They say that several types of people would benefit: infertile couples, for example, who haven't been able to conceive any other way. These groups claim cloning could be their last option. Also, they say that people without partners could clone themselves. One of the groups called the Raelians, is planning on cloning a 10 month old baby who died. His parents want to pass on their dead child's DNA.


Question from chat room: If body parts are cloned for future personal transplantation, would that solve the problem of organ rejection?

Elizabeth Cohen: It wouldn't necessarily solve the problem, but conceivably it could provide an alternative to organ donation. But, that appears to be way, way down the road. But, you've pointed out the fact that there's more to just human cloning than producing another human being; the techniques behind cloning can also help therapeutically for humans already living.

Question from chat room: The religious-sect people who want to clone believe in natural and normal relationships and natural birth, or is that banned in their religion?

Elizabeth Cohen: I don't believe it's banned in their religion; they just believe in cloning in addition.

CNN Moderator: Why are members of the religious group Raelians so interesting in human cloning?

Elizabeth Cohen: The Raelians believe aliens passed on their genetic material to humans, and they feel -- passionately so -- that we should clone ourselves and pass our DNA on in a cloned form, not just in the usual way. The belief in cloning, they say, is a central part of what they call their religion

Question from chat room: If the baby died from an illness, why would the parents wish to pass on DNA that perhaps contributed to the child's demise?

Elizabeth Cohen: It's hard to say, because all info about this baby is filtered through the Raelians. But, it does not appear that he died from an illness. But even if he did, the parents want that child's DNA re-invigorated, so to speak

CNN Moderator: Why do the people who want to clone humans think that they will have a better success rate then those cloning animals?

Elizabeth Cohen: These groups say -- and they don't always get very specific -- that the techniques for monitoring human pregnancies are better than for animals. And, the Raelians say they'll monitor the pregnancy closely, and if it looks like the embryo is abnormal, it would be aborted. First of all, it might miscarry on its own and they'd just start over, but if it doesn't miscarry on its own, they would do an abortion and start again.

Question from chat room: Is it possible that cloning might produce a Frankenstein?

Elizabeth Cohen: Since we've never produced a human clone (that's been publicized) we don't know what a clone would look like. But the concerns are that, if not a Frankenstein, it would be defective in some way. Animal clones have had very high rates of heart, lung and other defects. Many ethicists say that it's a crapshoot -- you don't know what you're going to get, and even if the baby looks normal, will it be normal later in life? Cloned animals, for example, that looked like normal babies in adulthood became grotesquely obese for no apparent reason; the genes seem to have misfired. And with humans, you don't know what will happen mentally. There's no good animal model. You can't test a cow's mental abilities.

Question from chat room: Is cloning only done in the lab, or has In vitro been attempted?

Elizabeth Cohen: In vitro means in a body, so yes, it's been done in animal bodies: mice, sheep, goats and cows. Dolly is an example.

Question from chat room: Doesn't this bring in the possibility of a new type of ethnic cleansing?

Elizabeth Cohen: People have brought up all sorts of concerns like this, that a madman would make hundreds of clones of himself. But it's important to remember several things when considering that kind of scenario: First of all, these clones start out as embryos. You cant just snap your fingers and make a clone of yourself. You first make an embryo and then find a surrogate mother to carry the embryo to term. So the clone would always be younger -- sometimes much younger - than the original. Also, just because you've made a clone doesn't mean they'll be just like their original personality wise. Just think: identical twins are clones of one another, and often they're quite different in their personalities, approaches to life, etc.

CNN Moderator: Since only four states have laws against human cloning, what are the possible outcomes of the hearings today of the House Energy and Commerce Committee?

Elizabeth Cohen: The subcommittee says there are many purposes to the hearing: to debate the ethics, hear about the science and to help determine if there should be a federal ban on human cloning that's intended to produce a child.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Elizabeth Cohen: Yes. While reporting this story, I've been struck by the two very different concerns about cloning -- One, the concern that the technology could get into the wrong hands and we could create armies of clones of a madman, and two, the concern that cloning a human at this point, given the experience with animal clones, would be irresponsible because according to many experts, you run a very high risk of creating a baby with serious defects and deformities. These are very different concerns, and I think the hearing will focus on the second, which is more of an immediate concern.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining our discussion today, Elizabeth Cohen.

Elizabeth Cohen joined the chat room via telephone from Atlanta, GA and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, March 28, 2001 at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

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