The maverick scientists who this week announced imminent plans to clone people are trying to fob off the technique as merely the latest breakthrough in infertility treatment. There is, however, no comparison between cloning and earlier reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization.
Cloning has been performed on hundreds of mice, cows, goats and pigs since Dolly the cloned lamb's pioneering birth in 1997. But subsequent research has shown that nearly all of these animals suffer from a wide range of unpredictable defects, from gross deformities to heightened susceptibility to disease. Cloning humans using today's technologies would come at an unacceptably high price, even aside from the crushing moral questions.
That's why legislators in Congress, alarmed that several established and well-funded scientists stepped up lobbying campaigns this week to persuade nations to host their planned cloning clinics, are right to consider legislation to ban human cloning. The House will hold a hearing on the issue today.
Banning cloning in one nation, of course, is no global solution. The American reproductive physiologist Panayiotis Zavos met with Israeli leaders earlier this week. Severino Antinori, the Italian doctor famous for helping a 63-year-old woman conceive, suggested he would set up shop in one of the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration should use diplomacy and clout to persuade other nations to forbid cloning aimed at procreation.
To avoid unintended effects, the U.S. and others should word their legislation carefully. In 1998, excessive zeal to quickly ban human cloning nearly led Congress to pass a bill that would have also prohibited a technically similar procedure with great medical promise: stem cell research, or therapeutic cloning. Like human cloning, therapeutic cloning places a person's DNA into a human egg cell that has been stripped of its own DNA. But rather than letting the egg grow into a mature embryo that would be carried to term, therapeutic cloning tries to chemically nudge the newly fertilized egg to grow into specialized replacement tissue that can be used for organ transplants.
Anti-abortion groups, arguing that the egg is equivalent to a person, want legislators to ban both therapeutic and reproductive human cloning. That flawed reasoning would strike a major blow to promising research. As Princeton University biologist Lee Silver notes, "eggs are not chickens, and acorns are not oaks."
There is a very real danger in cloning aimed at producing children. Passing effective yet restrained legislation to ban such a procedure will not be easy. But Congress should do everything in its power to break the maverick physicians' haughty embrace of an unproven and morally troubling new technology.