- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2001

An Italian embryologist says he soon will begin helping 200 couples have cloned children, and his claim is reheating and confusing the already fiery debate over cloning.
Dr. Severino Antinori, the scientist who seven years ago helped a 63-year-old woman bear a child, yesterday told participants at a National Academy of Sciences conference here that he would begin the cloning in three months. His American partner, Panos Zavos, told reporters that two cloning labs had been established.
Upon hearing of the announcement, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal office for the Holy See, told reporters in Rome that Dr. Antinori was trying to "emulate Hitler." The cardinal said, "Copying children, for reasons other than treating sterility, is Nazi madness."
Dr. Antinori earlier told British reporters stationed in Italy that his team of 20 international scientists would use the "somatic cell nuclear transfer" method of cloning — the process employed to produce the first cloned mammal, a sheep named Dolly. For the most part, he said, the couples' male partners were infertile with "no natural way of becoming fathers." He noted the procedures would be performed in some remote country — or in a ship at sea — if hostility to cloning made it necessary.
It well may be necessary.
"The world — including scientists, ethicists and politicians — is united on the notion that we should not bring cloned babies to term," said biochemist Larry Goldstein, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego.
Human cloning is fraught with difficulties, including the potential for miscarriage, premature delivery and genetic abnormalities.
"The debate over cloning is really a couple of debates, with misunderstandings and complicating nuances that tend to be overlooked," Mr. Goldstein said.
He was reacting to action in the U.S. House last week.
After a limited but widely watched floor argument, the House passed a measure outlawing cloning techniques to create identical copies of humans.
A spokesman for the Austrian Embassy said the news "was a same-day, front-page story" in his country and throughout Europe "because cloning is a matter of intense interest worldwide."
What made it more interesting to most observers was that the House also outlawed the use of so-called "therapeutic cloning" to produce tissue that could be used to treat diabetes and other ailments that now have no cure. Violators would be subject to a 10-year prison term.
Nuclear transfer, the most successful and best-known cloning technique, would violate the ban. Under that procedure, the nucleus of the egg, which contains genetic matter, is extracted and a somatic cell is inserted in its place. A somatic cell is nonreproductive, like a skin cell.
The transformed egg then is subjected to electric current. That fuses the cell to the egg's membrane, and causes the egg to absorb the cell's nucleus and genetic material. The reaction mimics conception.
To create a cloned animal — including a human — the egg, which now acts like an elemental embryo, must be transplanted into a female — a surrogate mother.
Therapeutic cloning follows the same procedure. The nuclear transfer is accomplished on a human egg, creating the embryo. But the egg is not planted into a surrogate. Shortly after the embryo starts growing in the lab, stem cells from the embryo are removed to be used for research and eventually as therapies for now-incurable ailments like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.
Medical researchers believe that a human body may reject stem cells that are injected to cure disease. If so, treated patients will be required to take anti-rejection drugs interminably.
However, if the patient contributed the cell that replaced the egg's nucleus in the cloning process, the patient in effect would be receiving part of his own body. That, according to the rationale for therapeutic cloning, would pose no fear of rejection and no need for anti-rejection drugs or risk of drug reaction.
Still, many fear that allowing therapeutic cloning — for curing diseases and eradicating stem-cell rejection — would open the door to abuse.
Indeed, Dr. Antinori and several other scientists insist they won't be deterred from cloning, despite the ban.
During the debate in the House, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, argued against a ban on therapeutic cloning, saying: "We must not allow our fears about research to overwhelm the hope for curing disease. We must not isolate this nation from the rest of the scientific world."
With the exception of Great Britain and Japan, no developed nations allow therapeutic cloning — although most are debating the issue. "We're watching the United States. They're the leader in this," said a spokesman for the Australian Embassy.
The legislatures of Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the European Union, among others, are either debating cloning or receiving reports from special study commissions. The situation in Austria is typical.
Austria banned cloning in 1992, six years before stem cells were isolated and five years before Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut and his colleagues mastered somatic nuclear transfer. The Austrian government recognizes that scientific advances have made its law obsolete and have forced a re-evaluation of the legislation.
"The issue truly needs careful deliberation," said Mr. Goldstein, the biochemist. Along with some constitutional lawyers, he asks, "Does the government really have the constitutional ability to prohibit across the board something that has no obvious harm to people, but could benefit those who are ill?
"Suppose I had a daughter and my daughter had ALS. Suppose I took a cell from her arm and one of her eggs and generated activated stem cells to treat and cure her disease. Does the government really have the right to prohibit that? It's her arm and her cells."
Constitutional lawyer John Robertson of the University of Texas School of Law in Austin said in Wall Street Journal report that the government does not have that right. If therapeutic cloning works, he said, a ban on its use well might be interpreted as infringing on a person's right to life.
But Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, said he doesn't doubt Congress can ban therapeutic cloning. In evaluating constitutionality, he said, "the courts look at a balance of interests." He offers an analogy:
"If Congress passed a law that said it was illegal to remove gall bladders, it would be struck down. On the other hand, if the law banned certain drugs because their potential for abuse or for mistreatment is so great — heroin, for instance — I think most courts would uphold that. Therapeutic cloning may fit in that category."
The House measure has moved to the Senate for debate, which promises to be fierce.

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