House hearings turn skeptical eye on cloning
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Skeptical lawmakers opened hearings into possible human cloning Wednesday as an advocate argued that safeguards can head off critics' worst fears.
Former University of Kentucky professor Panayiotis Zavos, who said in January he planned to clone a human within one to two years, said the ability to have a family is a human right and the technology to clone humans should be available to couples unable to reproduce on their own.
"We have no intention of stepping over dead bodies or deformed babies in order to accomplish this," Zavos said.
Zavos and Brigitte Boisselier, director of a cloning program backed by a religious sect, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations Wednesday afternoon. Subcommittee members warned them from the outset that they faced a skeptical audience.
Its chairman, Rep. James Greenwood, opened the hearing by citing Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel "Brave New World" -- a cautionary tale about a world of mass-produced humans.
"The possible cloning of human beings is now not relegated to the world of fiction, and the question to the world is this -- what should we do with this science?" asked Greenwood, a Republican from Pennsylvania.
A federal moratorium now bans the use of federal funding for any research that attempts to create a child by cloning, technically known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Leadoff witness Thomas Okarma, president of biotechnology company Geron Corporation, urged that current restrictions should be kept.
"It is simply too dangerous technically, and raises too many ethical and moral questions," Okarma told the subcommittee.
'Genie out of the bottle'
Republican Rep. Brian Kerns of Indiana introduced legislation today to ban human cloning in the United States. The bill -- HR 1260 or the "Ban on Human Cloning Act" -- is the first to be introduced in the 107th Congress to establish a U.S. prohibition.
"In light of recent developments, it is important that we take a stand and act now to ban human cloning in the United States. The prospect of cloning a human has significant moral, ethical and human health implications," said Kerns in announcing his proposed legislation.
Few laws exist to stop scientists from cloning a human. Only four U.S. states -- California, Michigan, Louisiana and Rhode Island -- ban any type of cloning research, both publicly and privately funded. Twelve nations worldwide have banned human cloning.
"We do not want to stifle research and development in other areas of science and medicine; we simply want to ban the cloning of human beings," said Kerns. "In my work on the House Committee on International Relations, I will seek to build consensus throughout the world on this issue."
Zavos said he has a plan to clone a human, "but I do not want to reveal it before this committee today." And he said during questioning that any human experiments would need Food and Drug Administration approval.
But he added, "We have a technology here that will be developed. Everybody has to understand ... that the genie is out of the bottle. What we are discussing here is how to put the genie back in the bottle and disseminate it safely."
Kathryn Zoon, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research said human cloning is "a cause for public health concern."
"Because of unresolved safety questions on the use of cloning technology to clone a human being, FDA would not permit the use of cloning technology to clone a human being at this time," she said in a statement.
Lawmakers on the panel, however, questioned FDA's ability to effectively enforce any human cloning ban.
Louisiana Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the full Energy and Commerce committee, said the process "raises scientific, medical, moral and ultimately policy questions that we as a people must confront."
Others were less equivocal: Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush bluntly told witnesses that "human cloning must be banned now and forever." He and others raised practical and moral arguments against it, raising the possibility of new discrimination based on genetics.
"Even if cloning begins with a benign purpose, it could lead to scientific categories of superior and inferior people," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida.
Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, a House Republican leader, remarked, "Dolly the sheep will learn to fly before the U.S. House of Representatives condones human cloning."
Space sect urges freedom of inquiry
Also testifying was Brigitte Boisselier, director of Clonaid -- an arm of the Raelian Movement, which believes life on Earth stems from genetic engineering by extraterrestrials. Clonaid hopes to clone a boy who died of a genetic heart defect at 10 months, and Boisselier said 50 members of the movement have volunteered to carry the cloned embryo -- including her own daughter.
Boisselier, a chemistry professor at a Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, said lawmakers should preserve "the freedom of scientific inquiry and the freedom to make personal reproduction choices."
Boisselier said extensive differences between humans and animals -- including a lack of inbreeding among humans -- make it more likely that humans will survive cloning attempts.
"These are completely different species with different cells and different reproductive techniques," she said. Clonaid has a team of four scientists working on the project, Boisselier said, but she declined to name them publicly.
Most animal experiments fail
Many scientists around the world are abiding by a self-imposed moratorium on cloning humans. Opponents argue that the science is not advanced enough to clone a human safely. They cite the high incidence of miscarriages, birth defects and other health problems in animals that have been cloned.
Zavos said experiments with animals have not used embryonic testing available to detect abnormalities before birth. But Dr. Rudolf Jaenishch, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said those claims don't hold up.
"There's no way to screen with the available technology or with any technology in foreseeable future to do that," he said.
In the more than three years since scientists in Britain cloned the sheep Dolly, other researchers have successfully cloned sheep, cows, goats, pigs and mice. But in most cases, the cloned animals died at birth, Jaenishch said.
"Some reach adulthood and they appear normal, but they may not be. I believe there is probably not a normal clone around," he said. And even if humans have a better chance of surviving than other mammals, Jaenishch said, "We should not find out, because humans are not guinea pigs."
CNN Senior Medical Producer Miriam Falco and CNN.com Writer Matt Smith contributed to this report
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