By Brian Love and Mary L. Schumacher
WASHINGTON – A panel of experts speaking Wednesday before a congressional committee expressed doubts that the cloning of humans would ever take place.
“We pride ourselves as human beings for our diversity,” said Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health. Cloning humans is “an offensive idea,” he said.
Rep. Constance Morella, a Bethesda Republican, scheduled the hearing before the House Science subcommittee on technology after reading last week about the first cloning of an adult mammal in Scotland, a sheep named Dolly.
The concept of cloning humans raised questions as to who might be harmed, or whose rights might be violated, said Dr. Thomas Murray, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
But more to the point, he said, “There are a set of moral concerns at the heart of our response to cloning that touch the most intimate and important relationships in our lives – the relationships of parents and children, the lives of families.”
Murray said the furor over cloning underlined the overemphasis Americans place on genetic makeup, and encouraged people to be open to rational discussion of the subject.
“Our genes are merely the ground plan,” he said. “Our personalities are made up as well by the totality of our life experiences, what we learn and whom we love.”
He said one woman he talked to about cloning was alarmed by the prospect of making identical human beings, but she said an exception should be made for Mel Gibson.
“I like Mel Gibson,” Murray said, noting that a Gibson clone would be a close physical match to the movie star. “The bad news is that Mel’s charm lies in his personality and wit, at least as much as in his good looks.”
The panel was careful, however, to make a distinction between human cloning and animal cloning.
Animal cloning using the cells of embryos, which has taken place since 1986, “provides a powerful approach to improving the availability, affordability and quality of food and [is] in the public and national interest,” said Dr. Caird Rexroad, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All of the panelists agreed that there are several benefits to be gained from animal cloning.
Creating genetically identical groups of mice or rats for laboratory studies could reduce uncertainty in the study of some diseases, such as AIDS or diabetes.
Cloning animals can also help scientists watch how genes turn on and off, aiding in gene therapy research, said Dr. Susan Smith, director of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center.
It may also provide an additional way to preserve endangered species, she said.
The Oregon center announced last week that it had cloned rhesus monkeys from embryonic cells. The monkeys are the species closest to humans to be cloned to date.
Dolly was cloned in July 1996 by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A member of the House subcommittee, Rep. Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, introduced two bills Wednesday designed to prevent human cloning.
The first would make permanent the ban President Clinton placed Tuesday on federal funding of human cloning research. The second would make such research a crime.
“It’s important to delineate limits on human cloning,” Ehlers said. “There are many potential benefits of cloning research of other animals.”
Some feared the legislation might be premature. “My concern is that we have a period in which we absorb and discuss the new findings,” Varmus said.
Morella expressed similar sentiments in her opening statement to the hearing. “We must weigh all of the future opportunities and benefits of cloning technologies to the biosciences,” she said.
The National Bioethics Advisory Commission will call together several religious leaders to discuss cloning at a meeting next week, said Murray, a bioethicist and commission member.
This week, Clinton asked the 18-member commission to devote all of its energies to assess how the federal government should involve itself in the issue. The group will report its findings within 90 days. “We expect to have a frank and vigorous airing of concerns,” Murray said. -30-