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The fears of a clone - Even the President turned out to hear what's hot at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia

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By Peter Aldhous NEW laws will be needed to protect the interests of any future human clones, say experts in the ethics, law and science of reproductive technology. But rather than starting from scratch, a leading bioethicist told the AAAS, legislators should modify the existing legal framework used to regulate adoption. At an all-day debate on the rights and wrongs of human cloning, bioethicists, lawyers, scientists and religious leaders agreed that safety concerns mean that human cloning should be banned for now. The main worry is the high risk of producing deformed or stillborn babies (This Week, 17 January, p 4). Experts disagree on what should happen in the longer term. Some countries, such as Britain, already have laws that should prevent human reproduction by cloning. “I have not heard a single reason for doing it that I find ethically acceptable,” says Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, who led the team that created Dolly the cloned sheep. “The relationship between a child and the parent would be bound to be difficult and disturbed. How would my wife respond to a teenage copy of me?” But others argue that if the technique becomes safe and efficient, cloning might be sanctioned under some circumstances. Ray Spier, a bioethicist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, points out that society already copes with a huge diversity of family relationships. “I don’t think that anything we can do in the cloning world sits outside the norm to a great extent,” he says. Most would-be cloners would not fit the stereotypes of crazed dictators and egomaniacs, the AAAS was told. Glenn McGee of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia says that a woman who had lost her husband and only son in a car crash might wish to bear a clone of one of them. And for some infertile couples, cloning would offer the only chance of bearing a child that is genetically related to themselves. In the US, the political consensus seems to be increasingly behind the idea of a temporary ban on producing children by cloning. One bill, introduced on 5 February by Senators Edward Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein, would impose a 10-year moratorium while allowing research into cloning to go ahead. The delay would provide a breathing space in which to develop the legal framework needed to decide who should be allowed to clone themselves. “We have to have a policy,” says McGee. “The right response is not a short-term ban followed by the free market.” McGee told the AAAS that his goal was to “craft some kind of policy based on the adoption model. Adoption is an area where there is a lot of consensus.” His team is developing questionnaires that could be given to prospective cloners much as would-be adoptive parents are screened by the courts to ensure that they will provide an appropriate family environment. Those questions would screen out people who might just want a younger version of their present partner. They would also focus on whether parents would have unreasonable expectations about the way in which their cloned child would develop. One of the main concerns is that clones would be subjected to intolerable pressure to follow in their parent’s footsteps. But Arthur Caplan, who heads the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, says that the adoption of McGee’s plan will require a radical change in American attitudes to reproductive technology. The issue should be whether cloning is good for the clone, says Caplan. “But that is very hard for Americans. Our focus is always on the individual’s right to procreate.” Given the American experience with IVF, which takes place in private clinics with almost no regulation, Caplan fears that the central issue of a clone’s welfare could easily become lost. “I would not be optimistic that this country is going to do a good job,