March 24th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Britain's foot and mouth outbreak - the global link

EDITORIAL: The challenge facing John Howard

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Can Howard "placate the crocodile"?

LAW: US rejects International Criminal Court

Straws in the Wind

FAMILY: Senators oppose Howard IVF amendment



COMMENT: Humane economy v. the bottom line

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: How closer Asian ties benefit Australia

EDUCATION: New assessment can mean almost anything

ECONOMICS: China's slow progress on WTO entry

HONG KONG: Has democracy a future in Hong Kong?

SCIENCE: Human cloning attempt roundly condemned

COMMENT: What would a right-wing Philippa Adams look like?

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Human cloning attempt roundly condemned

by News Weekly

News Weekly, March 24, 2001
Fertility specialist Panos Zavos, from Kentucky USA, and Italian obstetrician Severino Antinori, announced in January that they planned to clone a human. They claim to have assembled an international team of fertility specialists, though they are keeping the actual make-up of the team something of a secret.

Zavos runs a fertility clinic in the USA, which is not monitored by any national body overseeing fertility treatment. The American Society of Reproductive Health says he is not a member, though his website claims otherwise. Antinori, his Italian colleague, gained some notoriety in recent years, by helping a 62-year-old woman to have a child.

In their January announcement, Stavos and Antinori claimed to have assembled a team of experts from around the world, including a Roman Catholic cardinal whose job it will be to counsel the team on ethical concerns. "There will be Japanese, Koreans, Orientals, Greeks, Italians and some elite members from the Middle East Medical Society," Zavos claimed.

The program for an up-coming meeting to discuss the project, however, fails to mention the cardinal, and of the speakers attending, US experts can only recognise a few names. Apart from Zavos and Antinori, there is also a Karl Illmensee, an Austrian scientist who claims to have cloned some mice in 1979, but was later discredited.

Despite widespread condemnation from fertility experts and geneticists, Zavos and Antinori are determined to go ahead: "[W]e have a good understanding of all the failures with animal cloning ... We can quality-control embryos now and screen them and make sure there are no defective genes."

Chief fear of many scientists is that the state of gene technology and cloning techniques are still primitive, and over 95 per cent of cloned animal embryos fail. Scientists are still unable to tell which cloned animals will be able to develop to full term and which will fail. "We want to be able to tell which embryos can grow to a calf and which cannot," says Michael Bishop, President of Infigen Inc., a cattle-cloning company in the US. "We're getting there. But we're nowhere close to having that correct."

One would have thought at the very least that the high failure rate of most cloned animals would call into question any attempts to clone human beings. "What these guys are doing, or saying their going to do, is just criminal," according to Rudolf Jaenisch from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in the USA. "Serious problems have occurred in all five species cloned so far, and all are mammals, so of course it's going to happen to humans. No question."

According to many scientists these are the results that can be expected from experiments in cloning humans:

Firstly, most of the early implanted clones will spontaneously abort, due to genetic abnormalities. Secondly, of the handful of clones that make it full-term, most will have grotesquely enlarged placentas and fatty livers. Of the few that do survive until birth, most will be monstrously big and are likely to die within the first weeks anyway.

Then there are the deformities. Most of the cattle cloned were found to have severe deformities and other physical abnormalities, such as huge navels, the result of the giant umbilical cords that inexplicably form with cloned animals. According to Jon Hill, a veterinary reproductive physiologist at Cornell University, the cloned cattle have "a bulldog, squashed-up face or head."

Zavos and Antinori claim that their cloning experiments will only be used to aid infertile couples. This is likely to win them some support from the public, which now accepts IVF for similar reasons. The technique to be used in producing a human clone would involve the injecting of cells from the father into an egg, which would then be implanted into the women's womb. The resulting child, if all goes well, would have the same physical make-up as the father.

A spokesman for the Vatican called the cloning of human beings unnatural and immoral, and said all such experiments should be brought to an end.

With the decline of common moral standards and religious beliefs in the West, and the growth of a rampantly consumerist global economic order, which puts a monetary value on everything, it is hard to see how new technologies can be prevented from being used, or at least controlled until their full implications are known. Hard questions need to be asked, however, which the scientists in question seem unconcerned about: what if the human beings produced by cloning techniques were deformed in the manner of many cloned animals? What would be done with such a creature once produced and whose responsibility would it be? Should cloning be allowed to become a commercial practice, surely a certainty in our money-obsessed culture? What becomes of human life then? Do we all just become potential consumer products?

At this stage though, human beings seem ill-prepared to confront such questions. Technology will continue to race ahead of us until we do, driven on by its own momentum.

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