Science panel says clining humans for reproduction unsafe

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Cloning human beings for the purpose of reproduction is medically unsafe and should be banned but cloning to treat diseases should be allowed, a National Academy of Sciences panel said Friday.

The panel's exception for research put it at odds with a bill passed by the House and supported by President Bush.

The scientific report comes as a newly installed panel of White House bioethics advisers weighs the benefits of medical advances against the moral hazards of human cloning. Bush has challenged the ethics group to be the "conscience of the country."

"Human reproductive cloning should not now be practiced," the academy's report said. "It is dangerous and likely to fail."

Animal cloning has shown that "only a small percentage of attempts are successful; that many of the clones die during gestation, even in late stages; that newborn clones are often abnormal; and that the procedures may carry serious risks for the mother," the panel added.

Panel chairman Irving L. Weissman said that "when we review all of the animal studies the frequency of success is astonishingly low."

Maxine Singer added that "in cases where an animal has been born, a significant number of them have developed medical problems." Singer is president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Weissman, a professor at Stanford University, said the 11-member panel was unanimous in its recommendations.

Mark Siegler, a professor at the University of Chicago, said there "clearly was unease" in recommending a ban on a medical procedure but committee members felt there were compelling reasons to do so.

However, the scientists said the ban should not extend to cloning of embryos in order to extract stem cells that have the potential to treat life-threatening diseases. That practice is sometimes called therapeutic cloning to differentiate it from reproductive cloning.

Congress is now debating a cloning ban. Last year the House passed a ban that would include both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, but there is considerable sentiment in the Senate to limit the ban to only reproductive cloning. Bush supports a total cloning ban.

The science panel urged that the safety of reproductive cloning be re-evaluated every five years, but that the procedure be banned during that time.

"The panel believes that no responsible scientists or physicians are likely to undertake to clone a human," the report said. "Nevertheless, no voluntary system that is established to restrict reproductive cloning is likely to be completely effective."

The panel focused only on medical and scientific issues, saying it was leaving to others any discussion of the ethical, religious or social questions surrounding cloning.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization that advises the government on scientific and technical issues.

Across town, the President's Council on Bioethics was diving into the details of human cloning. While none of the members spoke in favor of reproductive cloning to produce a child, several argued that the burden is on opponents to prove why it should be banned.

For some, the issue is moral. "Once we have a human embryo we have a new human being who is a subject of rights and protection," said Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

Others disagreed. Dr. Daniel Foster, chairman of Internal Medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, said he is much more concerned with the safety of cloning. "That alone is enough for now," he said.

But for the embryo, "I don't know if that's life or pre-life," he said.

Bush repeated his opposition to all human cloning Thursday but said the group can serve an important role in helping Americans understand the issue.

"I have spoken clearly on cloning. I just don't think it's right," Bush told the council, which met with him at the White House. "On the other hand, there is going to be a lot of nuance and subtlety to the issue, I presume. And I think this is very important for you all to help the nation understand what this means."

Bush created the council, a mix of ethicists, doctors, lawyers and philosophers, after wrestling with whether to allow federal funding for research that used stem cells derived from embryos. He said he hopes the group will help as he faces similar balancing acts in the future.

"I really think you can help be the conscience of the country," he said.

Bush said it would help people like him understand how to come to grips with how medicine and science interface with the dignity of life, "and the notion that ... there is a creator."

The 18-member council will examine stem cell research, as well as euthanasia and assisted reproduction, typically in vitro fertilization.

To date, no one has cloned a human, which would be the genetic equivalent of a twin brother or sister born later. But scientists have cloned several animals, and last fall, researchers announced they had created a human embryo clone to provide stem cells for research.