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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 18:18 GMT


To clone or not to clone
image: [ Cloning humans is now technically possible ]
Cloning humans is now technically possible

The ethical debate over whether human beings should be cloned has been put into sharp focus by the announcement by a US scientist that he is ready to clone a human being within three months.

Dr Richard Seed, a Chicago-based physicist, hopes to take unfertilized human eggs provided by donors and replace their DNA with DNA from an adult cell taken from the person who is to be cloned.

This is exactly the same procedure that was used a year ago by the Scottish scientists who produced Dolly the cloned sheep.

[ image: Dr Richard Seed says he is ready to begin cloning experiments]
Dr Richard Seed says he is ready to begin cloning experiments
"We're talking about a process that's very similar to in-vitro fertilisation," he said.

"You suck out an unfertilised egg from the ovary and this unfertilised egg has DNA inside it from the mother, just like it was done in sheep in Scotland.

"You then suck out the DNA and insert in its place the nucleus of an adult cell. Then you would get a cloned human, an identical twin to the donor of the nucleus, but 30 to 40 years younger than the donor of the nucleus."

Waiting for approval

Dr Seed is still negotiating with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which currently opposes human cloning.

He says he will not begin his experiments unless the Society approve them. In principle, there are few technical obstacles to what Dr Seed proposes.

Dr Alan Colman of the Scottish biotechnology company that is now building up flocks of cloned sheep, said that the cloned humans could easily become a reality.

[ image: Humans could clone their own genes]
Humans could clone their own genes
"It would be possible though whether it's practical, ethical or moral is another matter.

"Before Dolly, I would have been one of the main people saying it was impossible, but it can be done. But there are a lot of reasons why it shouldn't be done."

Few people seem ready to contemplate the idea of producing identical copies of human beings.

In the United States, President Clinton has reflected this view in his proposal to ban such research for at least five years.

It is a view shared by the European Union, the Vatican and by most ethics groups.

Dr Richard Nicholson, editor of The Bulletin of Medical Ethics is against cloning.

He said: "I think there are fairly obvious dangers if one has once cloned an adult mammal such as a sheep.

"There can't be a great deal more scientific knowledge required before one would have the capacity to clone an adult human. That obviously raises enormous ethical problems".

But Dr Seed believes there are nevertheless many people who would be willing to have a go.

"I have a number of friends who are in the fertility business in the USA and I probably know at least ten who would like to attempt to clone humans but who, for various political, social and economic reasons, cannot try."

Questioning the nature of humanity

There are many for whom the issue has acquired a theological dimension.

The former British Member of Parliament, David Alton, who is trying to get all cloning research stopped, said it would bring into question the very nature of humanity.

"I think this is leading to the abolition of man as we know him," he said.

"I think that we're creating here a subspecies. And man, in the future if this proceeds, will simply be an artifact - not a real man at all."

Dr Seed denies this, saying cloning will make mankind immortal, even god-like.

"God made man in his own image, and it is my fundamental belief that God intends man to become united with himself or herself and that there is absolutely no technical reason that we should not have an indefinite life and indefinite knowledge," he said.

Medical benefits

In the shorter term Dr Seed, in common with many other researchers, believes that cloning on a more limited scale could have value in treating human disease.

Many scientists, like geneticist Professor Steve Jones of London University, believe that cloned human tissue could be used to replace body parts damaged by disease or injury.

"An immediate possibility that comes to mind would be to have people clone their own genes to treat their own illnesses," he said.

[ image: Cloning could help infertile women]
Cloning could help infertile women
"Women in particular could take one of their own eggs, insert their own genes from a healthy cell in there and maybe have a chance to treat and replace cancerous tissue, or tissue that is been badly burned. That is in the future, but it may not be that far in the future."

Cloning could also sometimes allow an infertile woman to have children with her own genes, by inserting the nucleus of one of her body cells into the fertile egg cell of another woman, who would then have the egg reimplanted into her womb.

Some scientists and doctors see that process as quite acceptable. But human cloning is not an issue that will be easily resolved.

The technology is available. Now scientists, ethics groups, governments and citizens need to consider the pressing question of when, and to what extent cloning is ethically acceptable.

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