Human Being, or Human Folly?
10:00 a.m. Mar. 9, 2001 PST
Hundreds of couples have volunteered for an experiment to create the first cloned child despite strong religious and scientific opposition, a team of scientists said on Friday.
Since the international team said in January it would work to produce the first human clone, between 600 and 700 couples have come forward and the number is rising, said American doctor Panayiotis Zavos.
"Interest has come from all over, from Japan to Argentina, from Germany to Britain," Zavos told reporters after saying his team was ready to start cloning in the next few weeks, principally to help infertile couples bear children.
"Being infertile is like a stop sign," he said. "You face the deficiency and ask God 'Why me? Why do I have to go and get sperm cells from someone else in order to have a child?'"
Zavos, attending a cloning conference in Rome, deflected mounting criticism of his plans, saying people would eventually get over opposition to human cloning.
"Historically, this is normal but once the first baby is born and it cries, the world will embrace it," he said.
"Now that we have crossed into the third millennium, we have the technology to break the rules of nature."
But the proposal has come under serious fire from mainstream scientists and religious groups. On Friday, Father Gino Concetti, a moral theologian whose views are thought to reflect those of Pope John Paul II, reiterated the Vatican's position.
"These proposals contradict the truth of mankind, man's dignity, man's rights ... especially the right to be conceived in the human way," Concetti said.
Italian team member Severino Antinori, who gained notoriety by helping a 62-year-old woman give birth, also sought to dispel the flood of disapproval.
"Cloning may be considered as the last frontier to overcome male sterility and give the possibility to infertile males to pass on their genetic pattern," he told a packed auditorium of scientists and journalists.
"Some people say we are going to clone the world, but this isn't true.... I'm asking all of us to be prudent and calm. We're talking science, we're not here to create a fuss."
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the John Paul II Institute for Bioethics at Rome's Gemelli Hospital, said human cloning raised profoundly disturbing ethical issues.
"Those who made the atomic bomb went ahead in spite of knowing about its terrible destruction," he said. "But this doesn't mean that it was the best choice for humanity.
"The forecasts (about human cloning) sadden us but don't scare us," he said, adding it would be a betrayal if the Roman Catholic Church's voice was not heard in the debate.
Scientists have also slammed the plan. A director of Rome's La Sapienza university wrote a letter disapproving of the cloning conference being held in one of its halls.
"I consider it disgraceful ... and I dissociate myself from the meeting," professor Ermelando Cosmi wrote.
Scientists have warned that 97 percent of animal cloning attempts have been unsuccessful and that those embryos which survive to birth are often deformed.
Dr. Ian Wilmut, who created Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, said it took 277 attempts to get it right.
Zavos said that might not be the case with humans, firstly because they were a different species and secondly because the embryos would be scrutinized for any deformity.
The team said it would start work within weeks but would not say where they will set up their cloning laboratory, citing security reasons. When the team announced their plans in January, they said they would work in a Mediterranean country.
Zanos added they had "unlimited funds" from private donors but again would not elaborate.
"We have plenty of money, I can assure you. There are no financial restrictions," he said.
Zavos said he believed that governments should develop further legislation on human cloning to keep it under control but at the same time said his experiments should not be subject to government scrutiny.
"We don't want the government involved in this project," he said. "This is a high-tech, serious project and we're not going to bring in the technocrats if they are not needed."
Last year, Britain proposed allowing human cells to be cloned for research purposes while other European countries, including Spain and France, have banned human cloning altogether.
Predominantly Roman Catholic Italy has looked into the therapeutic cloning of stem cells in order to combat degenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
"The genie is out of the bottle," Zavos said. "We need to make sure it is bottled and disseminated responsibly."
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